Addressing students’ mental health needs coming out of the pandemic

Over the past year, extended school closures caused by Covid-19 have wreaked havoc on our nation’s students. Thousands have lost parents, grandparents, and family friends to the virus. Children and teenagers have suffered from a lack of routines and extracurricular activities and the inability to see their friends and classmates. Their moms and dads have dealt with fallout from unemployment and small business closures. And far too many have suffered from neglect and abuse, which have gone unreported.

Those hit hardest are the most disadvantaged children, especially kids in big-city school systems where reopening decisions have been mired in controversy, pushback, and distrust. Even before the pandemic, teenage suicide rates and other signs of psychological distress were on the rise. For all of these reasons, many students will need increased mental health support as they transition back into a full-time academic environment, and as they struggle to manage grief, anxiety, or other emotional responses to recent events that will require long-term monitoring and an ongoing response.

School leaders recognize this, citing students’ mental health as one of their top concerns. But many educators don’t feel confident in their ability to identify who in their classrooms might require additional mental health supports. And many schools lack a clear, coherent system for addressing these needs, with roughly 40 percent reporting that they currently address concerns on a “case by case basis.”

This needs to change. Now and in the near future, as children reacclimate to traditional in-person classroom environments, schools must develop, implement, and maintain distinct plans to support students’ mental health. Ample federal resources are heading into school systems to help offset the costs. To be sure, schools must remain focused on their core academic missions, rather than try to become full-service mental health providers. But just as children can’t learn if they are hungry or can’t see the whiteboard, neither can they learn if they are suffering psychological distress.

This year’s Wonkathon from the Fordham Institute tackled these issues head-on. The competition asked contributors to address this fundamental and genuinely challenging question: How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?

Twenty-five essays were submitted. The winners are:

First place: Reimagining teacher teams to address students’ mental health by Angela Jerabek:

Second place: We need to admit that school is alienating by Jeff McGuire:

Third place: To address mental health, think systemically about social, emotional, and academic learning by Justina Schlund: 

For all entries, see: