Teachers and students are concerned that the Madison School District failed to deliver on its commitment last year to make student mental health a top priority as they returned to class full-time after a year of online learning.
Madison is looking to start the 2021-22 school year with a focus on student mental health
Dan Walkner, an English teacher at Memorial High School, has seen students struggle daily with their mental and emotional well-being while navigating the school in the first semester toward in-person learning amid the pandemic of COVID-19.
“People just don’t understand what kind of effect it has on students. I think you can guess how bad it is but you really don’t know until you’re there and see it happen the kids are falling apart you hear them and you see it in their writing or you see the level of dissociation,” he said. “We weren’t ready for any of this.”
During the week of teacher training before the start of the school year, they received only about 40 minutes of social and emotional learning training led by building administrators.
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“It’s incredibly helpful, the things we’ve covered, but 40 minutes of training won’t prepare you for what’s being dubbed a national mental health epidemic,” said Walkner, who has worked in the district for 15 years.
There was no discussion of how to identify warning signs among students or what protocol to follow if they reach out in a moment of mental distress, he said.
Aliyyah Wiley, a junior from East High School balancing multiple AP (advanced placement) classes, extracurricular activities, preparing to take the ACT test and a job outside of school, said she doesn’t know that East had a school psychologist until this school year due to the lack of mental health education presented to students.
“As someone who cherishes mental health, especially within the black community, I personally don’t see it being talked about at all, maybe by a few sympathetic or empathetic teachers,” she said. .
Students in crisis
At the end of the 2020-21 school year, Walkner said there was a consensus among her colleagues and building administration that student mental health should be the top priority once students returned to class. But as the school year began, it became clear that there was no district-led directive to provide teachers with the training they would need to support students in times of collective trauma.
Some teachers have sought training on their own, at their own pace, and paid for it out of pocket, said Walkner, who holds a master’s degree in curriculum and teaching with a focus on trauma and resilience. Concordia University in Portland.
“Teachers want to help, but we are also students – we have to learn,” he said. “If we are not ready to help, the children will fall by the wayside because it will be labeled as something else.”
At the start of the 2021-22 school year, high schools in Madison were seemingly rocked by weekly, if not daily, fights. In the first semester, an 18-year-old student from La Follette high school was forcibly arrested at school with what police said was a loaded handgun, resulting in the cancellation of the basketball game at East-La Follette high school; another was accused of beating a classmate outside of West High School.
Prior to these incidents, a series of fights broke out outside East High School and drew more than 15 police officers, who broke up the melee with pepper spray, sending five students to hospital. Later that evening, one of the attendees fired a gun at the home of another student, narrowly missing those inside, according to court records. The incident came three weeks after another lunchtime scuffle outside the school that drew more than 10 police officers.
Madison School Board members said factors such as social isolation, depression, anxiety and raw nerves brought on by the pandemic, coupled with nearly a full year without in-person learning, resulted in an increase in altercations between students in schools this year.
This is supported by the findings of the latest youth assessment compiled by the Dane County Department of Social Services. Nearly 27,000 students from 19 area school districts responded to the survey in 2021. More students reported struggling with stress, anxiety and depression than in previous years. Previous reports have pointed to a steady rise in mental and emotional health issues, but the trend has accelerated this year, likely due to the pandemic.
Natasha Sullivan, an AP English teacher at La Follette High School, said her students are feeling the pressure to meet the standards and rigor set by advanced classes while experiencing trauma as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. . The stress her students are experiencing has manifested in different ways, she said.
“If I have a kid who gives me attitude, who’s a little mean to me in class, I’m going to pull him to have a conversation and ask him what’s going on,” she said. “And those are the tears, right away. Decomposition. And they say, ‘I have so many things, I have all these things to do.’
Both noted the worsening of pre-existing challenges facing young people during the pandemic. This has disrupted the lives of children and adolescents, such as in-person schooling, in-person social opportunities with peers and mentors, access to healthcare and social services, food and shelter, and health of their caregivers. The negative impacts of the pandemic have hit those who were vulnerable to begin with the most, such as people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, low-income youth, youth in rural areas, youth from low-income households. immigrants, youth involved in child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and homeless youth.
“They feel that stress a lot. I think it differs from school to school and even from class to class,” Sullivan said. “In other classrooms we have students who are going through trauma on top of the trauma, we have the trauma of poverty, the trauma of racism on top of everything we’re going through – it’s bringing them to the breaking point .”
District Commits Funds
In May, the Madison School District pledged to increase its focus on student mental health and well-being before the start of the 2021-22 school year.
“In some ways, this is a universal experience, so we really need to think about how we support student mental health and wellbeing for all students,” said Kristen Guetschow, coordinator of the district mental health, to the Wisconsin State Journal in May. . The district said it plans to focus on “building community, building from a place of relationships, and directly teaching social-emotional learning skills,” she said. declared.
The district also told the State Journal that funding from Federal Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) II, along with a grant from Dane County, would be used to bolster longstanding mental health programs and therapy on square.
The district has earmarked $670,000 in ESSER II funds to hire mostly central office staff to focus on mental health and wellness, but about half of the positions remain vacant due to staffing shortages. District spokesman Tim LeMonds also said the district allocated a portion of the $670,000 for ongoing motivational interviewing training for school-based student services staff.
However, Walkner said he had not taken any district-led training on mental health or social and emotional learning – other than a 40-minute discussion on social and emotional learning during the training week. teachers at the start of the school year – he also hasn’t heard of any plans for future teacher training, despite budget allocations. There are proposals in the district for additional mental health supports for ESSER III spending students.
Mike Jones, president of local teachers’ union Madison Teachers Inc., said the investment in mental health supports is not as comprehensive as teachers had hoped during the school year. He also noted that the lack of preparedness is evidence of inefficient funding or a focus on student mental health needs before the pandemic.
“In terms of access to school buildings and people on the ground to meet mental health needs, that is lacking. … I don’t think it’s deliberate, but there’s not much you can do with it ($670,000),” he said. “No matter what happens, we have so much catching up to do.”
Wiley recalled her freshman year, before the pandemic, when she and her friends prioritized school and work over their own mental health and wellbeing. During the winter break of the 2019-20 school year, Wiley said, she and her friends began to realize how exhausted they felt.
“We dragged and dragged every day to do something, to get a 4.0 or an A in a certain class,” she said. “We never received any help, we were never told it was OK not to be well or to take the day off.”
Wiley would like to see mental health and wellness incorporated into the curriculum, but at the very least, she would like presentations to be held at the beginning of the year or semester to educate students about mental health supports and resources. offered to them through the school. She had hoped the district would have made adjustments to better support student mental health and wellbeing before the return to in-person learning after the online school year, but when she returned to the classroom at the fall, Wiley said nothing had changed.
“They should really consider the mental health of their students. … It was tough,” she said of returning to classrooms. “It was back to the same curriculum, back to the same things we were doing in first grade. I think that’s so unrealistic.