The 2022-2023 school year will restore a degree of pre-pandemic normalcy. But many of the pandemic’s lasting impacts remain a reality for schools.
Namely, it highlighted the fragility of mental health amidst months of lockdown, a public health crisis and rising political tensions, as student mental health reached crisis levels last year.
Data from the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey — fielded from January-June 2021 — shows 3 in 10 high school students experienced poor mental health most or all of the time during the 30 days before the survey. It defined “poor mental health” to include stress, anxiety and depression. Alarmingly, more students (44%), said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row in the 12 months leading up to the survey.
To mitigate these lasting effects, school districts nationwide have used federal pandemic relief money to explore new coping tools and programs, hire mental health specialists or expand curriculums that prioritize social and emotional health.
Dr. Michelle Morse, superintendent of the Bettendorf Community School District, acknowledged that several stressors contribute to the spike in behavioral and mental health issues nationwide. She believes behavior is contextual, and that it’s important to address it that way.
“What’s allowed at home could be very different for a student at school, and they may struggle to understand or adjust to those differences,” she said. “Our focus here is the whole student. We want to continue to provide rigorous academics, but we also have to meet students’ social, emotional and behavioral health needs.”
Morse said the district used a variety of funding sources to strengthen programming and that the district recently received two state grants relating to social and emotional learning (SEL). One measure Bettendorf schools took for the new school year was implementing the “7 Mindsets” curriculum for grades 6-12.
“It’s a comprehensive social-emotional curriculum designed to promote those essential life skills, such as decision-making relationship skills, social awareness, self-awareness and self-management,” Morse said.
The district will also pilot a social-emotional curriculum for PreK-fifth grade. Morse said the district was focused on creating an aligned, common curriculum around social, emotional and behavioral health, to be fully implemented by the 2023-2024 school year.
“There’s that differentiating piece, to meet students where they’re at and support them,” she said. “… consistency and clear expectations set our students and staff up for success … so everybody knows what’s expected of them, regardless of what role they play.”
Like Bettendorf, the East Moline School District No. 37 has experienced higher levels of behavioral and mental health needs, warranting additional support and interventions in and out of school.
Superintendent Kristin Humphries said his district supported SEL programs for all buildings, using curriculums and resources based on Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) standards.
“Our early childhood program supports SEL through Conscious Discipline, with support from a social worker, behavior specialist and a family coordinator,” he said. “Our school-based mental health providers offer both tiered interventions and general support. EMSD has worked to develop partnerships with community agencies to serve our students’ needs. Traditionally, we offer site-based therapy and telepsychology for students with higher needs.”
Conscious Discipline programs guide adults when handling behavioral needs to better support themselves and the students. Approximately 935 school districts have implemented the program, across 73 countries.
The Moline-Coal Valley School District No. 40 will use several new, creative ways to address student mental health. Last year, the district launched a therapy dog program, reaching three schools to date. This year, School Health Link — a school-based health clinic — will move to the high school to ease access and provide additional support for students and families.
Notable changes include certifying all district counselors in Youth Mental Health First Aid training and inscribing crisis hotline and suicide prevention phone numbers on the back of all grade 6-12 student ID cards.
“Other impactful changes include dedicated time for SEL during the instructional day and the highly anticipated transition of the Coolidge Alternative program to the newly renovated A-wing of Moline High School,” Superintendent Dr. Rachel Savage said in a letter to the district.
This “school within a school” model gives students from the former alternative program — which was re-branded as the ASPIRE program — greater access to counselors, academic advising, course offerings and a “vastly improved learning environment.”
Savage noted several reporting mechanisms for Moline-Coal Valley students to use if in a crisis, like the P3 anonymous reporting app, Safe2Help Illinois and a bullying-reporting form on the district’s website. The district is also partnering with the Moline Police Department to form a collaborative safety group.
One way the Catholic Diocese of Peoria has addressed student mental health is by making it a priority for professional development and bringing in speakers to spread awareness. Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of schools, said the diocesan high schools were reviewing their counseling programs to extend beyond the classroom.
“… And to also use their skills and training for counseling therapy, in addition to guidance. The state certification/licensure ensures training in both guidance and counseling,” she said. “Our office has seen more of our schools working with outside professional agencies, in the absence of on-site counselors, on issues of behavioral and mental health challenges.”
Weiss said all of her diocesan high schools had counseling and guidance departments with state-certified, licensed professional counselors, though only a few of the elementaries had counselors in house.
Lynne Devaney, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Davenport, said they also use SEL programming while still integrating faith-based values.
Through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), over $5 billion in federal funds went toward expanding access to mental health services; the ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund was estimated to receive another $2 billion to expand those services in schools.
In June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation to address the shortage of mental health professionals and increase access to mental health services in Illinois. Across the river, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that Iowa would allocate $100 million in federal funds toward school security and mental health programs.
Morse said the district used a variety of funding sources to strengthen programming, and that they recently received two state grants relating to social and emotional learning (SEL).
Devaney, who has experience serving public schools, said it’s more difficult to navigate state and federal relief funds.
“I’d say with the ARP money we have gotten if they’ve had a need they’re able to add that,” she said. “For parochial schools, it’s been an incredible struggle for us to work with the state and federal government to access the money that was allocated to us.”
Leila Assadi, an incoming senior at Pleasant Valley High School, said she thought it was important for students and teachers to regularly interact on topics of mental health. She’s involved with a club called “Positive Place,” which holds sessions for PV students and teachers to discuss issues like mental health, inclusion and diversity.
“I think when students reach out to teachers about issues they have or things they want to see change, it causes that change to happen,” Assadi said. “On the flip side, schools should do that without students initiating it because schools are supposed to serve the students.”
It may be difficult to adequately address student needs during staff and educator shortages — another issue seen nationwide.
Illinois had a 665-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio during the 2020-2021 school year, according to data gathered by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Iowa’s ratio was 370-to-1. The ASCA model recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.
Morse said there were counselors, nurses and school-based therapists in each Bettendorf school building. This year, they’ve added and filled a “social, emotional and behavioral health coordinator” position to serve the district.
East Moline schools have counselors, social workers and a district SEL coordinator in each building.
“EMSD also employs a specific staff member who coordinates with community agencies for mental health programming and services,” Humphries said. “This individual works with all of our school counselors, social workers, SEL Coordinator, and the outside agencies to bring more services to our students and families.”
On top of counselor shortages comes the hot-button teacher shortage.
Moline-Coal Valley schools will continue its intensive academic recovery program for a second year. The district hired approximately 35 additional academic recovery-focused certiﬁed teachers to work alongside current teachers and support staff last year.
“We are grateful to have utilized our emergency federal funding to support this additional human resource so students can get more of the individualized attention they need,” Savage said. “Results from our academic recovery work from last year have already proven successful as student growth improved markedly by the end of last school year and we look forward to continued effective instruction.”
Both local diocesan schools saw challenges filling vacancies.
“Many principals contacted our office expressing their frustration and anxiety in trying to find and hire qualified teachers and staff, even up to this week,” she said. “We’ve had many discussions, while creatively thinking through how to redesign teaching schedules to accommodate some of the shortages within the buildings if a new hire can’t be found.”
Devaney said they’d “amazingly” been able to fill all but one position.
Weiss added that, thankfully, all 42 of their diocesan elementary and secondary schools will start the year with what they need for academic success.
Bettendorf schools’ human resources team attended a national conference last year, which focused on strategies to combat the educator shortage.
“We have only a couple of teaching positions open at the moment, and they’re constituted as historically ‘hard-to-fill’ positions,” Morse said, listing math and industrial technology. Because of the growth of Bettendorf’s fine arts program, they’re also looking into hiring another orchestra teacher.
Humphries said his district had gotten creative when it came to recruitment, namely for hard-to-fill positions.
“We have hired several visiting international teachers, to fill both hard-to-fill positions and those that require their linguistic skills,” he said. “We have also changed the language in our collective bargaining agreement to pay tuition for current employees, like teaching assistants or teachers studying to become licensed in different areas.”
Several federal and state programs aim to alleviate the shortages or foster a student-to-workforce pipeline.
This summer, Reynolds’ Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship (TPRA) program awarded the Davenport Community School District a $3,700,848 grant. The district will partner with Bettendorf, Clinton, Muscatine, North Scott, Pleasant Valley and West Liberty school districts for the program.
But local parochial schools are excluded from these funding streams, Devaney said.
“We would love to be included in the governor’s plans to increase student-to-workforce. My Catholic superintendent colleagues and I have expressed that through our legislative contacts,” she said. “Our students don’t have access to that pipeline unless they take a dual-credit class through a community college.”
Another issue plaguing the new school year is the lingering COVID-19 variants and rising monkeypox outbreaks. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports 14,115 confirmed monkeypox cases since Aug. 18.
Most local schools are adhering to regional or state public health guidelines as they navigate the viruses.
Case in point, Humphries said East Moline schools will continue to follow best practices and guidelines set by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“We’ve used some of our federal dollars to help navigate the public health emergency. Masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and new equipment to help our custodial crew be more efficient were procured with federal dollars,” Humphries said. “Approximately 85% of our increases in supplies to mitigate pandemic conditions were paid for from federal funds.”
Weiss also said her diocesan schools were following state and local public health department recommendations.
“Our office regularly shares any information that we receive via Zoom conferences or the regional offices of education that keep non-public schools up-to-date with the most current statistics and protocols for monkeypox and COVID-19 and its variants,” she said.
Morse said her schools would continue to follow and promote good hygiene practices to curb the spread of illnesses, like hand-washing and staying home when sick.
“I recognize that immunizations are a very personal choice for families — we always encourage families to work with their medical practitioners to determine what’s best for them,” she said. “We also have high-quality air filtration systems in all of our buildings, so we believe that helps as well.”
Unlike most local schools, Diocese of Davenport schools remained open during the entirety of the pandemic. Still, Devaney said they work collaboratively with public health officials and guidelines to stifle the spread of illnesses.
“From the very beginning, we invited all to mask, should they desire to do so,” she said. “We approached it on a highly individualized basis, and we always work in concert with our local boards of education and perished, as well as our great relationships with county health officials.”
Devaney said they’re not highly concerned about monkeypox at the moment, but that she’s ready to wait, watch and take advice from medical professionals.
“We’ve learned a lot from COVID in terms of just general good safety and health measures that should be used all the time, so I’m not feeling any anxiety from the schools at all,” Devaney said.
Looking at mitigation efforts, Assadi hopes her peers and staff are respectful.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different; some aren’t worries about COVID or monkeypox,” she said. “But other people could have family issues or personal reasons as to why they’re worried about physical illnesses. So it’s important not to judge someone who is more cautious.”