CLEVELAND — While we've adapted to a new sense of normal, the mental health impact of the pandemic continues to plague Northeast Ohio schools.
“We definitely need more support in our schools,” said Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teacher's Association. “We see some behaviors that we have not experienced before. Students that are very quick to anger or very quick to be upset and in ways that we wouldn't have seen previously. Reactions that are more severe than we would normally see…also, a lot of our adults, you know, we don't have the level of patience that we did either. Just a lot of a lot of stress on the system for a variety of reasons and I think we see that everywhere.”
The impact is burdening teachers as well.
“We're hearing more and more than ever before that staff are feeling burnt out. Teachers are thinking seriously about whether they can make it in the profession and in some cases are actively seeking mental health support.”
According to Erich Merkle, a psychologist for Akron Public Schools, ongoing trauma of racial injustices, school shootings and gun violence outside of school aren't helping.
“In the last couple of weeks, we've had some significant tragedies across the country with the multiple numbers of mass shootings all the way to here in Akron. We have had the tragic loss of two youth in a house fire. We also had a tragic loss of a high school student a couple of days ago. So, there are continuous events in addition to that broad environmental constellation of social-emotional concerns that were with us this whole year. There are also those acute incidences that also come up that also tug at our heartstrings and impact all of us deeply too,” he said.
Mental health in schools by the numbers
New information from the Institute of Education Sciences shows about 70% of public schools across the nation are reporting an increase in students reaching out for help, since the beginning of the pandemic.
But only about a half of those schools have services to provide the help students need.
The group School Pulse Panel surveyed more than 800 schools. It found in the Midwest, including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, “87% of public schools have encouraged staff to address students’ mental wellbeing, 44% have hired new staff to focus on student mental health, and 20% have added student classes on emotional health. In addition, staff seeking mental health services from school since the start of the pandemic has increased 31% in the Midwest.
The survey points to several factors limiting mental health resources, including not enough mental health professional staff (66%), inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals (59%) and inadequate funding (55%).
“As educators, we have a responsibility to ensure every single one of our children, every single one of our students is nurtured and supported so they can learn,” said
Merkle says Akron Public Schools shrunk class sizes this school year and added more outside support from behavioral health providers.
“What typically is a model in most school districts, including in Akron, was that a lot of buildings had shared personnel. So, they would have a shared school counselor that might be between maybe two or three buildings or same thing with a school psychologist. Now, we don't have that limitation,” Merkle explained. “We know that every building has a school counselor. We know that every building has a school psychologist, although a few of them are still shared for smaller buildings. Now you have those two main cohorts of educational personnel who are able to provide those services and the schools.”
However, in Cleveland, the challenge remains. We're told throughout K through eighth-grade schools, guidance counselors are nowhere to be found. Currently, counselors are only housed in the district's high schools.
“We have the 'Say Yes' program in about 75% of our schools now and it will be 100% of our schools next year where we have access to additional supports, but having additional mental health supports are, I think, going to be critical moving forward,” said Obrenski.
Obrenski acknowledged social and emotional learning support in classrooms, as required by the state, was an important addition. Yet, more still needs to be done.
“It just seems like this year we anticipated coming back to something that would feel normal and in reality, it's probably been more challenging than even last year and certainly something that we weren't expecting.”