Mental health thread running through learning recovery

BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s top education officials warned Tuesday that Massachusetts’ schools still have a long road ahead when it comes to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to students’ mental health.

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

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

“I think the biggest misstep that we made last year, when we came back to school at the start of the 21/22 school year, was that we were so hopeful about coming back to some sense of normalcy, that we did not anticipate the amount of dysregulation that we were going to encounter,” said Revere Superintendent Dianne Kelly, speaking on a panel of superintendents from around the state.

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

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said when students returned to schools in-person, full-time last spring, the department asked schools to check in with students about their mental and physical well-being “first and foremost.”

“We knew that we had to take care of our kids’ most basic needs first: food security, housing security, and social emotional well being so they could return to school ready to learn,” Riley said.

Kelly said increasing the amount of instructional learning time built into the school day, to make up for time missed when students were at home learning virtually, “might not actually be the most effective use of time for our students.”

“Engaging in joyous learning activities and building community among students and staff, taking time to process difficult situations, will better equip students to successfully complete their regular school tasks,” she said.

DESE has released over $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, adjustment counselors and social workers in schools by 7 percent over the last few years, Riley said.

Also still left on the table is over $1.6 billion in federal emergency education funding — of which about 10 percent is intended to go toward mitigating mental and behavioral health issues, Peyser said Tuesday. So far, schools have only tapped about $965 million, or about 37 percent, of this $2.6 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief pot.

In her pitch to lawmakers, Kelly said school systems are still using standardized tests to measure success “as if nothing is different” since the COVID-19 pandemic, leading schools to dedicate insufficient time to students’ mental well-being.

“We message to educators, students and staff that the test is the most important thing. Schools will not devote adequate time to helping achieve a balance when they are assessed and measured in only one direction,” she said.

Kelly added that the statewide standardized testing in Massachusetts is more comprehensive than is required by federal law, and tests more grades.

“These are areas in which the legislature and Board of Education of Elementary and Secondary Education could make changes that would release some of the pressure on schools and provide more time for schools to focus on mental health needs,” she said.