Teachers urge students’ mental health to be prioritized amid COVID-19 turmoil | local education


Teachers and students are raising concerns that the Madison School District failed to live up to its commitment to make students’ mental health a top priority over the past year as they returned to classrooms full-time after a year of learning online.

Madison plans to begin the 2021-22 school year with a focus on student mental health

Dan Walkner, an English teacher at Memorial High School, saw how students struggled daily with their mental and emotional well-being as they navigated school back to in-person learning in their freshman year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People just don’t understand the effect this has on the students. I think you can imagine how bad it is but you really don’t know until you get there and see this happening, kids breaking down. You hear them and you see it in their writing or you see the level of dissociation,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for any of this.”

During the teacher training week prior to the start of the school year, they received only about 40 minutes of social and emotional learning training, led by the building manager.

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“It’s incredibly useful, the things we’ve gone through, but 40 minutes of training isn’t going to prepare you for what’s been called the national mental health epidemic,” said Walkner, who has been in the district for 15 years.

There was no discussion about how to spot warning signs in students or what protocol to follow when they reach out in a moment of mental distress, he said.

Aliyyah Wiley, a junior at East High School who juggles several advanced placement classes, extracurricular activities, ACT test prep and an off-school job, said she didn’t know East would have one until this school year School psychologists have had a lack of mental health education presented to students.

“Personally, as someone who values ​​mental health, particularly within the black community, I don’t see it being talked about at all, maybe by a few teachers who are compassionate or empathetic,” she said.

students in crisis

At the end of the 2020-21 school year, Walkner said there was a consensus among his colleagues and building management that student mental health must be the top priority once students return to classrooms. But as the school year began, it became clear that there was no district-led policy to provide teachers with the training they would need to support students during a time of collective trauma.

Some teachers have sought out training on their own and in their spare time, paying for it out of pocket, said Walkner, who has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a focus on trauma and resilience from Concordia University in Portland.

“Teachers want to help, but we are also students – we have to learn,” he said. “If we’re not willing to help, the kids will be left behind because it’ll be labeled as something else.”

As the 2021-22 school year began, Madison’s high schools appeared to have been riddled with weekly, if not daily, fighting. During his freshman year, an 18-year-old La Follette High School student was violently arrested at school with what police say was a loaded handgun, resulting in the cancellation of the East-La Follette High School basketball game. another was accused of hitting a fellow student outside of West High School.

Prior to these incidents, a series of fights erupted in front of East High School involving more than 15 police officers who broke up the melee with pepper spray and took five students to the hospital. Later that evening, one of the participants fired a gun into the home of another student, narrowly missing those inside, court records said. This incident came three weeks after another midday fight in front of the school, in which more than 10 police officers took part.

Members of the Madison School Board said factors such as social isolation, depression, anxiety and frayed nerves caused by the pandemic, coupled with nearly a full year without in-person study, led to an increase in inter-student arguments in schools this year to have.

assessment survey

This is supported by the results of the latest Youth Assessment compiled by the Dane County Department of Human Services. Nearly 27,000 students in 19 school districts across the region completed the 2021 survey. More students reported struggling with stress, anxiety and depression than in previous years. Previous reports showed a steady increase in mental and emotional health problems, but the trend has accelerated this year, likely due to the pandemic.

Natasha Sullivan, an AP English teacher at La Follette High School, said her students felt pressure to meet advanced grade standards while still experiencing trauma amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The stress her students experience has shown itself in different ways, she said.

“If I have a kid who gives me an attitude and is kind of mean to me in the classroom, I’ll pull them into a conversation and ask them what’s going on,” she said. “And it’s instant tears. Collapse. And they say, ‘I just have so much. I have all these things to do.’”

The US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a mental health crisis among the country’s youth in 2021, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both noted the worsening of pre-existing challenges faced by youth during the pandemic. It disrupted the lives of children and youth, wiping out personal schooling and their personal social opportunities with peers and mentors, restricting access to health and social services, food and shelter, and affecting the health of their caregivers. The adverse effects of the pandemic hit hardest those who were vulnerable from the start, such as people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, low-income youth, youth in rural areas, youth in migrant households, youth involved in childcare deal or juvenile justice and homeless youth.

“You feel this stress very much. I think it varies from school to school and even from classroom to classroom,” Sullivan said. “In other classrooms, we have students who are going through trauma on top of the trauma, we have the trauma of poverty, the trauma of racism on top of everything we’re going through — it brings them to breaking point.”

The district provides funds

In May, the Madison School District committed to a renewed emphasis on student mental health and well-being ahead of the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“In some ways, this is a universal experience, so we really need to think about how we support the mental health and well-being of all students,” Kristen Guetschow, the district’s mental health coordinator, told the Wisconsin State Journal in May. The district said it plans to focus on “community building, relationship building and direct delivery of social-emotional learning skills,” she said.

The district also told the State Journal that funding from Federal Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) II, as well as a grant from Dane County, would be used to strengthen long-standing local mental health programs and therapies.

The district has allocated $670,000 in ESSER II funding to hire mostly headquarters staff focused on mental health and well-being, but about half of the positions remain vacant due to staff shortages. District spokesman Tim LeMonds also said the district provided a portion of the $670,000 for ongoing motivational interviewing training for school student services workers.

But Walkner said he received no district-led mental health or social and emotional learning training — aside from a 40-minute discussion of social and emotional learning during teacher training week earlier in the school year — as well as plans for future teacher training he has heard nothing despite the budget allocations. The district has proposals for additional mental health support for students in ESSER III editions.

Mike Jones, president of local teachers’ union Madison Teachers Inc., said the investment in mental health support isn’t as comprehensive as teachers had hoped would flow into the school year. He also noted that the lack of preparation is evidence of inefficient funding or a lack of emphasis on pre-pandemic mental health needs of students.

“In terms of getting into the actual school buildings and supporting people on the ground to address mental health needs, that has been lacking. … I don’t think it’s intentional, but there’s only so much you can do with ($670,000),” he said. “No matter what happens, we have so much catching up to do.”

Wiley recalled her first year before the pandemic, when she and her friends prioritized school and work over their own mental health and well-being. During the winter break of the 2019-20 school year, Wiley said, she and her friends began to realize how drained they were feeling.

“We dragged and dragged ourselves every day to get something done, to get a 4.0 or an A in a certain class,” she said. “We never got any help, we were never told it’s okay not to be okay or to take a day off.”

Wiley would like to see mental health and well-being incorporated into the curriculum, but at the very least she would like to make presentations at the beginning of the year or semester to make students aware of the mental health supports and resources offered to them by the school . She had hoped the district would have made adjustments to better support students’ mental health and well-being before returning to in-person learning after the online school year, but when she returned to the classroom in the fall, Wiley said nothing had changed .

“They should really consider the mental health of their students. … It was hard,” she said of returning to the classrooms. “It was back to the same curriculum, back to the same things that we did freshman year. I think that’s so unrealistic.”


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