Federal school reopening guidance underscores mental health

A holistic approach to battling pandemic challenges.

By ShawnPavonePhoto from Canva

The social and emotional well-being of educators and students is earning deserved attention in a new government release. On April 9, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) published its second roadmap on reopening schools safely: ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Student’s Needs.

This second volume in a series intended to advise schools on managing pandemic challenges focuses on student well-being in alignment with research showing the importance of attending to the whole child to promote learning.

“The science says it’s about more than just getting kids back in the classroom,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently tweeted. “It’s about making sure they’re socially, emotionally, and mentally prepared.”

The department’s initial safety handbook, published in February, mostly advised on safe practices for in-person learning (such as masking, physical distancing, transportation, handwashing etiquette, etc.). However, since the CDC has shifted its recommended social-distancing guidelines from six to three feet for school settings, a revamped set of recommendations were needed to handle the growing influx of students physically present at schools.

So, how should schools prepare for more students returning to the building? Among other suggestions, the department recommends targeting mental health and active engagement:

  • Having school-based professionals (such as counselors, social workers, and psychologists) “provide additional and more intensive support to students with the most urgent needs that have been caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.”
  • Continuing to “support student voice and choice in how [students] learn.” Crucially, schools should provide opportunities for student to express themselves, as these moments can set the stage for students to connect with self and others. One educator, for example, describes using scaffolding to empower self-teaching and to be purposeful about developing collaboration skills.
  • Providing civics education “to bridge the social and emotional competencies” taught in school to empower students as future citizens engaged in community.
  • Measuring emotional well-being through engagement surveys and regular check-ins with students and families.
  • Implementing morning or closing meetings or “mindful moments” to self-regulate emotions.

While these recommendations may seem like standard practice, even pre-pandemic, they point to the importance of addressing the growing mental health crisis among kids under 18. The recommendations, however, don’t just pertain to students: The report also addresses supporting educator stability and well-being. The guidance covers everything from retaining effective educators to supporting principals through this transition to addressing educator workloads.

“COVID-19 has been difficult on our educators as well,” Secretary Cardona tweeted. “If we want them to be ready as we reopen our classrooms, we must build support systems so they can recharge and we must promote self-care.”

The department’s signal that the social and emotional well-being of students—a Whole Child approach to education—will be key to a successful transition back to in-person learning is very encouraging. Schools and districts can now draw from the recommendations to make a lasting impact.

For more on supporting student and educator mental health, check out these ASCD resources:

7 Ways Educators Can Help Students Cope in a Pandemic

Phyllis L. Fagell

Students can’t learn or exhibit self-compassion if they’re full of fear. To provide support, the most impactful gestures are the simplest.

To Address Educator Well-Being, We Need a Historical and Holistic Approach

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, Natalie Croney, and Renee Boss

Talk about mental health in schools goes hand in hand with conversations about systematic changes for better teaching conditions.

Mindset Coaching for Mental Health

Jo Lein

Improving mindsets related to classroom settings plays a role in overall well-being.

Promoting Educator Well-Being: What Is a District to Do?

Jessica Holloway, Luronda Jennings, Matt Johnson, Erin Kirby, Jill Landtroop, and Claire Stockman

How can district leaders help educators combat inevitable burnout?

Who Helps the Helpers? SEL for School Counselors’ Mental Health

Justina Schlund and Amanda Fitzgerald

School counselor well-being is hard to prioritize if it’s not reflected in the work climate and culture.

Opening Up About Mental Illness

Sydney Chaffee

A Teacher of the Year’s struggle with anxiety opened her eyes to the stigma around educators’ mental health issues.

Bandwidth Is the Key to Energy, Effectiveness, and Engagement

Jane Kise and Ann Holm

The No. 1 predictor of how people rate their personal brain “fuel tank” is whether they believe their workplace supports them in keeping that tank full.

Restoring Teachers’ Efficacy

Bryan Goodwin and Susan Shebby

Teachers’ sense of efficacy has taken a hit—and it’s closely linked to well-being.

EL Live: “Educator Wellness”

In this short video, Sharif El-Mekki discusses the mental health of Black educators and Meena Srinivasan suggests how to incorporate mindfulness into a daily routine.

Esteban Bachelet is an ASCD associate writer for Educational Leadership.