The thread of mental health runs through recovery education

The state’s top education officials warned Tuesday that Massachusetts schools still have a long way to go when it comes to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to students’ mental health.

“We have only begun the process of restoring learning for all of our students, and we must continue these efforts for years to come,” Education Secretary James Besser said at a Joint Committee on Education hearing.

While the decline in students’ academic performance across the country was documented in students’ standardized test scores—and was part of the discussion in the committee hearing—teachers and public officials also focused on the emotional well-being of Massachusetts students and how social emotional learning losses contributed to academic decline.

“I think the biggest mistake we made last year, when we returned to school at the start of the 21/22 school year, was that we were so hopeful about returning to some sense of normalcy, that we didn’t expect it to happen,” said River Principal Diane Kelly, speaking on a panel of supervisors from all over the world. Statewide: “How much disorganization we’d have.”

Education officials saw a “significant increase” in mental health challenges among students during distance learning periods, including “feelings of isolation, depression, suicidal ideation, and disconnection,” Beiser said.

When students returned to schools in person, full-time last spring, the administration asked schools to check with students about their mental and physical health “first and foremost,” said Geoffrey Riley, Commissioner for Primary and Secondary Education.

“We knew we had to take care of our children’s basic needs first: food security, housing security, and socio-emotional well-being so they can go back to school ready to learn,” Riley said.

Increasing the amount of blended learning time in the school day, to make up for time lost when students are home learning virtually, Kelly said, “may not actually be the most effective use of time for our students.”

“Engaging in fun learning activities and building community among students and staff, and taking the time to address challenging situations, will better prepare students to successfully complete their normal school tasks,” she said.

DESE has released more than $13 million in mental health funding through state and federal grants, and has increased the number of specialized support staff such as psychologists, nurses, guidance counselors, adaptation counselors and social workers in schools by 7 percent over the past several years, Reilly said.

More than $1.6 billion in federal emergency education funding — about 10 percent of which is intended to alleviate mental health and behavioral problems — also remains on the table, Peyser said Tuesday. So far, schools have benefited from only about $965 million, or about 37 percent, of the $2.6 billion in emergency relief for elementary and secondary schools.

In her presentation to lawmakers, Kelly said school systems are still using standardized tests to measure success “as if there’s no difference” since the COVID-19 pandemic, leading schools to dedicate insufficient time to students’ mental health.

“We’re sending a message to teachers, students and staff that testing is the most important thing,” she said. “Schools will not take enough time to help balance when they are only being evaluated and measured in one direction.”

Kelly added that Massachusetts’ statewide standardized test is more comprehensive than required by federal law, and tests more scores.

“These are areas where the legislature and the Board of Education for Primary and Secondary Education can make changes that will take some of the pressure off schools and provide more time for schools to focus on mental health needs,” she said.

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