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Woman walking daughter to school with face mask.

By Danna Mauch, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, and Sharon Shapiro, Trustee and Community Liaison for the Ruderman Family Foundation

As the delta variant reignites deep concerns around COVID-19 and leaders have yet to settle on clear health protection protocols for schools, the upcoming school year is fraught with mental health-related sensitivities for a second straight year. Anxiety and depression, uncertainties about the future, grief related to loss, isolation, addiction, and other challenges mean that mental health must be a centerpiece of the return to school, not a footnote.

The U.S. Department of Education has acted accordingly, releasing a “Return to School Roadmap” on August 2 as, in the department’s words, a “resource to support students, schools, educators, and communities as they prepare to return to safe, healthy, in-person learning this fall.” 

First, the administration has distributed $122 billion through the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and recipients may use those resources to address many needs, including “the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of all students.” Part of this funding can be used to hire more counselors in schools.

Second, amid the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on low-income communities, the administration has included mental health services within its plan to address the needs of students experiencing homelessness. It is important to recognize that social determinants of mental health related to economic security have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, such as rising rates of food insecurity (reportedly doubled in Massachusetts) and housing insecurity. 

It is incumbent upon schools and school systems nationwide to also center their approaches to the coming year around the issue of mental health. Essentially, students’ well-being means everything — why else do schools exist? This means that in addition to taking straightforward steps like using the federal and state funds at their disposal to hire more counselors and other personnel, schools need to determine sophisticated and strategic initiatives surrounding the all-encompassing issue of students’ mental health. 

“This is the Time to Lead with Mental Health and Equity in Mind,” a recent report authored by the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health's BRYT program in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, provides a framework for such initiatives. Describing the pandemic as a “slow-moving collective trauma experience with both immediate and long-term implications for the mental health of students, parents, and school staff,” the report suggests a comprehensive approach to care for the well-being of the whole school community at different levels of need: universal, supplemental, and intensive.

It has been difficult for school and district leaders to keep mental health and equity at the center of their work during the pandemic in light of real and perceived pressures around academics and COVID-19 prevention. Even in a pandemic, opportunities for transformation abound if we are willing to take them.

Additionally, simply prescribing “self-care” is not effective as a solution to the current mental health crisis. Adults in school need time and support to engage in meaningful and sustained efforts to stay well — which is accomplished through districts and schools attending to collective care and personal connection among adults, who can then attend to the same needs among students.

In terms of specific steps that prioritize mental health in the return to school, the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health and the Ruderman Family Foundation would recommend fostering connection with and among students; ensuring predictability to the greatest degree possible; enabling agency and decision-making on students’ part whenever possible; engaging all school personnel, not only counselors, as trusted sources of support for students; and modeling moderation in expectations, assignments, and assessments, including in educator workloads.

Additional action steps could include creating an individualized approach for students, who are returning to the classroom from different places emotionally and academically; offering mental health support for families, not just students; and instituting new rituals and routines that support emotional needs.

The delta variant has reminded us once again that COVID-19 is a long game and the return to school is no different. This could very well be the new normal for the start of each academic year for the foreseeable future. That is why schools must act now to institutionalize a more comprehensive approach to mental health, designing policies and practices that will benefit schools, students, and parents for years to come.

Danna Mauch, PhD is President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health. Sharon Shapiro is a Trustee and Community Liaison for the Ruderman Family Foundation.