LEAs should prepare now to address mental health when schools return

California’s district and county office of education officials are looking toward the 2020–21 school year with serious concern over how to provide a safe learning environment for students and staff, as well as the myriad academic and mental supports that will be necessary to move past the challenges brought on by COVID-19.

At the same time, local educational agencies are facing the likelihood of drastic budget cuts that would lead to significant cuts in programs and services offered on campus.

In the final of five webinars hosted by CSBA to ensure governance teams have the most up-to-date information and analysis of the current education landscape, experts all agreed on one thing: despite the dire financial situation confronting districts, mental health supports must remain a priority.

“Before COVID, one in five of our students at any given time was experiencing a significant mental health problem that was impacting their learning or their ability to connect with their peers, and since March, we’ve seen the effects of social distancing on mental health,” said Marlon Morgan, Wellness Together School Mental Health founder and executive director.

Morgan listed his five A’s when it comes to weighing program offerings and budgetary restraints:

  1. Assess what was working before COVID-19 happened and how students were being provided with the mental health supports that they needed to learn and access the curriculum more effectively.
  2. Adapt anything that was already effective in improving student well-being when possible under current limitations. This may include reprioritizing or retraining credentialed staff to shift their focus from academic guidance to providing additional mental health supports.
  3. Amend, or cut, what cannot be adapted or what wasn’t working well.
  4. Add resources and staff in the critical area of student support. “Even as many of us are being asked to make some very deep cuts financially, this would be an area to prioritize as we move forward to heal from a lot of trauma, and loss and grief that we’re seeing,” he said.
  5. Avoid cutting the only people on campus who have formal mental health training.

“This is not the time to make cuts to those services, but the time that one might really look at increasing them,” agreed Steven Adelsheim, director of the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing. “As people talk about this pandemic, there’s a great deal of discussion about the second wave being a mental health wave, and the need to ensure that we have critical supports for young people and their families going forward.”

What can governance teams do to prioritize mental health services?

Trustees play a unique role in supporting students, and the central mission of any school board is to make sure all students have access to supports not only to succeed academically, but for their mental health as well, said CSBA Education Policy Analyst Mary Briggs.

“There’s an extensive body of research that says for students to be able to learn effectively, their core needs must be met,” Briggs said. “Trauma does have an impact on the brain’s ability to learn new material and retain it, so mental health support is not an extra. It’s a foundational element that helps ensure students learn and thrive.”

During board meetings, Briggs said trustees can use a number of questions to drive priorities at the local level. Digging deep into the issues will provide strong information that allows members to make decisions regarding topics such as resource allocation that will shape the coming year.

Now is also the time to review current policy and make updates when warranted, Briggs said. To assist boards in planning for the reopening of school campuses, CSBA is releasing a comprehensive sample board policy in early June that will outline key considerations related to safe and sanitized facilities, attendance and enrollment, equity, special education, communitywide communication, mental health, staffing, teaching and learning.

Watch all webinars and find slides from the presentations here: http://covid19.csba.org/covid-19/