Back to School Will Not Be Back to Normal — Here’s How You Can Help

Administrators, teachers and parents have no playbook to help them plan for restarting the school year. Many are still recovering from a year of remote learning, with students using laptops and whatever apps were necessary to support communication and instruction.

To help with the return to school, many districts are designing strategies to help students and teachers who experienced mental health challenges during the pandemic. That’s important because we know the pandemic has had a devastating impact on their mental wellbeing.

The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported a past-year major depressive episode doubled over 10 years, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded a rise in suspected suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent report.

Administrators and educators also face short-term and long-term challenges. Teachers got vaccinated to protect themselves, and 86% of National Education Association members were fully or partially vaccinated in May.

But teachers also need more assistance to support their mental wellbeing. RAND Corporation researchers found that between May and October 2020, the proportion of K-12 educators seriously worried about burnout rose from one quarter to 57 percent.

Because the return to school will offer challenges, some districts are taking steps to help students, administrators and teachers. A recent report from a team of researchers at the Graduate Center, City University of New York found that 91% of New York City parents surveyed agreed there should be “increased mental health supports for students due to social isolation from COVID-19.”

The Biden administration has urged state lawmakers to direct some of the federal relief funds earmarked for K-12 public schools — $195 billion between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan — to mental health supports, according to USA Today.

We applaud these efforts, as they build on work that we have been doing for years. The National Council works with school districts to provide teachers, students and their families emotional and psychological support, leveraging our expertise in trauma-informed care to create safe spaces.

Trauma-informed care has its roots in a collaboration that began in 1995 between Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Major findings from that initial study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and long-term health showed a high prevalence of ACEs and a strong correlation between experiencing an adverse childhood event – like the pandemic – and illness later in life, the CDC determined.

After years of research, we know how important it is for clinicians to treat ACEs and toxic stress as early as possible because they can present life-long implications for a person’s wellbeing.

What might that look like? Episcopal Children’s Services, in Jacksonville, Fla., and Matura Headstart, in Iowa are addressing fatigue among staff and providing training on trauma, its impact and what teachers can do to help themselves and their students to build resilience.

In conjunction with the University of Michigan’s National Center for School Safety, the National Council is providing guidance to hundreds of schools and community partners through a learning community that is informing their post-pandemic return to school. That includes helping administrators and educators understand trauma – including the trauma caused by the pandemic – and through implementation of trauma-informed interventions for students and supporting staff and parents.

With federal support, other school districts also have important return-to-school initiatives underway. Hilliard City Schools in Columbus, Ohio, has added seven new school counselors, up to 42, and 10 more social workers, for 15 total, Director of Student Well-Being Mike Abraham told ABC News.

The Iowa Department of Education is putting $20 million in federal pandemic relief toward a mental health to “address the impact pandemic-related disruptions have had on students and will focus on strengthening mental health support moving forward.”

Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools will add mental health as an excused absence.

In Georgia, state education officials plan to use $2.25 million in federal funds to offer additional mental health trainings and resources for school districts and create a Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator position, along with another mental health position that will coordinate training for school staff across the state. We hope these examples will inspire other schools to follow suit and to prioritize the health and wellbeing of their teachers, staff and students.

We may not fully understand the impact of the pandemic for years to come, but if we prioritize the mental health of students and teachers this fall and beyond, then we will be prepared to help those who need support.


Charles Ingoglia, MSW
(he/him/his) President and CEO
National Council for Mental Wellbeing
See bio