Pitting mental health against safety, national leaders point to SEL in school reopening debate

The national debate over reopening schools for in-person instruction is taking a new turn: The uptick in students’ mental health needs during closures and whether schools are equipped to support this influx. 

“We want to reopen the schools,” President Donald Trump said during a White House school reopening roundtable Tuesday. “It’s time to do it.” 

Shortly prior to that event, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, along with a handful of health officials and politicians, also pushed for schools nationwide to open their doors in the fall so students can access school-based social-emotional supports. 

“We know that for so many students, the school environment is the best place for them to be,” DeVos said during the event. “And they have got to continue to develop themselves and not go through another several months to a year of biding time.”

She added reopening decisions should take into account students’ social-emotional and mental well-being in addition to their physical safety.

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, pointed to growing awareness around the “whole child,” saying school settings are often where students’ social, emotional and physical health needs are cared for.

“Schools are important and critical not just for educating,” Azar said. “They are actually the center of so many children’s entire healthcare, mental health, [and] social life.” 

The comments echo those made last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said in a Senate committee hearing schools should prioritize safely reopening for students, considering “unintended negative consequences that occur when we keep them out of school.” 

States prioritize SEL in reopening

Educators and other health experts overwhelmingly agree with these sentiments, with many noting the significant dip in reports of child abuse and neglect, as well as increased anxiety, trauma, and depression in students. 

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find any superintendent or district leader who doesn’t want to reopen,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance for AASA, The School Superintendents’ Association. 

A joint report released in late June by the Committee for Children and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, And Emotional Learning suggests state education agencies are also recognizing the need for increased SEL support. According to its survey, which included responses from 37 states, the majority of states said SEL has been an increased priority since the pandemic began, and that SEL increased in importance at the state agency level for the same reason.

Jordan Posamentier, director of policy and advocacy at the Committee for Children and a co-author of the report, told Education Dive states are “trying to build SEL into their priorities” but they are adopting different approaches. Posamentier pointed to Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina, among other states, moving in that direction through a multi-tiered systems of support approach. 

Feasibility, funding, equity remain ‘question marks’

But while educators, experts and politicians focus on the negative social-emotional impact of lengthy school closures, others question the Trump administration’s intent, as well as the effectiveness of SEL as a whole-school, trauma-informed strategy for children with adverse childhood experiences. 

“While these efforts are important, we don’t know if they’re actually working,” Deborah Temkin, the vice president for youth development and education research at Child Trends, told Education Dive. Temkin, a child development researcher who worked under the Obama administration, pointed out SEL is largely a preventative strategy rather than “trauma-informed care in and of itself.” 

We don’t know if they are leading to unintended consequences, because they just haven’t been evaluated,” she said. 

Taking to Twitter, Temkin also questioned the timing of the administration’s concern for students’ social-emotional well-being.

— Deborah Temkin, Ph.D. (@DrDebTemkin) July 7, 2020

Ellerson Ng added the responsibility of reopening safely, with health precautions in place, “makes it less likely to reopen at 100% enrollment.”  

Others point to the lack of funds and tightening budgets as additional “question marks.”

“What we’re not seeing is coherence in funding,” Posamentier, who analyzed state responses to SEL needs, said. “How are communities going to build mental wellness support, including SEL, when funds are scarce and need to be spent on especially emergent needs?” 

Temkin added not only were psychologist-to-student ratios already higher than recommended in many places before the pandemic, but support professionals, which include mental health professionals, were also the “first to go” from budgets during the Great Recession as a result of revenue shortages. 

Even with funds in place, inequities remain within districts. Students who attend schools that are majority Black are more likely to be in schools that have security guards and law enforcement officers than they are mental health professionals, Temkin said. 

Recent surveys show Black and Hispanic students will also bare a disproportionate negative impact of school closures. 

Is there middle ground? 

In Tuesday’s discussion on reopening and measuring risks, Dr. Robert Redfield, director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told administrators keeping schools closed is “the greater risk to our society.” 

“From a public health point of view, from a risk-versus-risk point of view, we need to reopen our schools,” he said.

Azar seemed to agree, saying it was a “health versus health” issue. 

But Temkin said there is more to the discussion than an “either or” statement about student well-being. Rather than seeing the decision as a dichotomy, she said, administrators must also take into account the well-being of teachers, nearly a third of whom are over the age of 50 and at greater risk of coronavirus complications. 

She also suggested other options:

  • Providing students online mental health supports.

  • Access to multiple adults who would usually be in the school building.

  • Interaction with peers without physically coming to school. 

Students also can group together on their own in person, for instance, while doing digital work to create a “bubble” that limits their contact with those at risk while also allowing social interaction. 

“If school systems help facilitate that, especially for those who may not have as much [social] capital to be able to organize that on their own,” Temkin said, “that may be an option that bridges the issue of isolation versus being in-person, at school.” 

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