This fall, students and staff at close to 200 public schools in Wake County, N.C., which includes Raleigh, received an unexpected break. Schools were closed on November 12 for a “day of reflection and preparation.” That same day, schools in Cumberland County, N.C., about 60 miles south, had the day off for “Wellness Friday.”
As the Delta variant of COVID-19 spread around the country, school districts in hard-hit regions of the country gave students and educators a chance to catch their breath. Schools in Battle Creek, Mich., devoted a day in October to giving students and staff a chance to “relax and reflect.” Rittnour, Mo., closed schools on November 1 for a surprise “staff self-care day,” and Alexandria, Va., elected to close for the entire week of Thanksgiving in “consideration of the high level of stress our students, family and staff have expressed.”
These districts cited staffing shortages in their reasons for closing, but also pointed to burnout among parents, teachers and students. The resulting closures serve to highlight the strain the pandemic has placed on schools, and how districts are dealing with calls to put more emphasis on mental health supports and social-emotional learning.
Burbio, a company that tracks school schedules, has found 65 district-wide mental health closures that impacted 2,535 K-12 schools. Researchers track over 5,000 school districts every week, and review communications from district superintendents. They started noticing the trend in the beginning of November, says the company’s president Dennis Roche. “There were superintendents writing things about the students needing a break,” he says. “Which was at the time quite unique and emerged suddenly.”
The highest concentration of closures occurred in North Carolina and Virginia, but there have been closures reported in other states around the country. These mental health closures include scheduling changes that both closed schools and move them remote. Most closures usually last only a day or two, Roche says.
Addressing Mental Health
Before the pandemic, many didn’t grasp the importance of mental health care for children, says Dr. Michael Enenbach, clinical director of the Child Mind Institute. “I think that the pandemic, in and of itself, has created this collective trauma with all of us,” says Enenbach. He says that shared trauma led to more recognition of what has been a longstanding problem.
The amount of stress felt by students has increased in the last 10 years, even before the pandemic. States like Minnesota and Oregon already had laws on the books that equate mental health days and sick days for students. In the last few years, laws excusing absences for mental health reasons have been passed or expanded in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Utah and Virginia, and similar bills have been debated in Florida, Illinois and Maryland. But accessing mental health care remains a challenge for many.
In 2016, about half of students with treatable mental health disorders did not receive adequate treatment, according to Child Mind’s 2021 Children’s Mental Health Report. Enenbach says the pandemic may help close that gap, but not without an increase in available providers and a concerted effort to raise awareness among parents and lawmakers.
“It’s really the lack of access that’s in the way. So even if we did identify most of the kids that have mental illness, it’s like, what do you do? Because there’s this huge waiting list,” Enenbach says. “We need to have a place to send the kids for help.”
In recognition of these added pressures, the state of California teamed up with Child Mind to launch the California Healthy Minds, Thriving Kids Project, a collection of 34 video lessons and worksheets designed to help teachers, students and parents cope with stress, anxiety and isolation. The $25 million project includes lessons on topics like mindfulness, managing intense emotions and relaxation strategies. The program is available in English and Spanish, and it also includes financial incentives for teachers to participate in the lessons. All of this comes as California is in the midst of a five-year, $4.4 billion overhaul in how it supports the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.
“We believe these new resources will offer effective tools—and ignite new hope—to promote the mental health and well-being of California children and young people across our nation,” Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute, said in a statement.
Child Mind advocates for discretionary mental health days for students, but district-wide closures can still be beneficial, Enenbach says. He adds that students and parents should have a conversation about why a mental health day might be helpful, and says parents should establish clear parameters so the time off doesn’t interfere with school work and the day is structured in a way that actually helps students de-stress.
Parents should consider the pressure students are under, the reason a student may want to miss a specific day and the impact of the change of routine, all of which impact students differently, according to a report published by Child Mind. “I think it’s just a matter of individualizing the plan,” Enenbach says. Parents should recognize that in some cases, their kids need a day to recover, even if that day doesn’t fall on Wellness Friday. “Just getting a day off a week, or one day off a month, can be helpful for everyone,” he says of school-wide breaks. “But I think we need to separate that from the individual cases.”