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Note: The following op-ed was co-authored by Sharon Shapiro, Community Liaison and Trustee for the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Dr. Henry White, MD, Clinical Director, The Brookline Center for Community Mental Health. The piece was published July 13 in Mass Live and The Republican.
What should school look like when it reopens in the fall? As is the case for various other sectors of the economy and society, the question is fraught with complications. Yet by offering guidelines for school reopening that include a section on mental and behavioral health, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has addressed one important piece of the answer.
The recently published guidelines helped start a crucial conversation surrounding how to get to the “other side” of the COVID-19 crisis. They feature materials such as guidance on behavioral and mental health services during school closures; MA Tools for Schools, a clearinghouse of resources to support sustainable school improvement; and a newsletter containing updates and offerings on holistic supports and enrichment.
Following the state’s first step, it is incumbent upon Massachusetts schools to use this summer to prioritize mental health in their planning for the fall, building resilience, strength, and stability for the school year ahead.
Reopening school is a milestone we long for, yet the details are far from clear with endless uncertainties surrounding them. September will not usher in school as we once knew it. The continuation of social distancing means desks will be kept 6 feet apart and masks will be worn by both teachers and children, along with stringent health and hygiene regimens. There will be no “back to normal.”
But these logistical changes are secondary to the mental health implications and equity challenges facing the students themselves. Children are struggling with anxiety and depression, spurred on by huge uncertainties about the future, grief related to the lost daily connections with peers and teachers, and lost experiences (graduations, field trips, sports). As the death toll climbs, increasing numbers of children, particularly in low-income communities of color, will experience grief over lost loved ones. Still more students will experience trauma related to caregivers’ sudden unemployment, food insecurity, illness, or having spent months in homes troubled with abuse, addiction, or other dysfunction.
Welcoming back anxious, depressed, traumatized, and grief-stricken children is an overwhelming prospect. But schools should start planning now to support all students’ emotional needs and wellbeing.
An instructive paradigm for this process comes from the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health’s Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) program supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation. After more than 15 years of experience successfully helping students return to school after prolonged mental-health related absences, BRYT offers a framework for schools to use in this upcoming transition.
Schools have the opportunity to adopt an individualized approach for students, all of whom will return to the classroom from different places — both emotionally and academically. The sudden pivot to remote learning is spawning extraordinary creativity in terms of reaching and supporting students as individuals. Rather than adopting universal solutions, schools can implement individual plans for each student that integrate academics with social-emotional learning, mental health, and care coordination. Then, when relevant, they can group students based on shared assets and needs.
Family support is also critical. Parents and caregivers have been absolutely heroic, and absolutely exhausted, by this initial social distancing experiment. They are now daily frontline educators and medical providers as they struggle to hold onto jobs (or wrestle with unemployment), keep food on the table, and take care of themselves and their loved ones.