Back to school: Educators and families confront learning losses and mental health challenges

August 25, 2021

A man wearing a face mask stares into the camera standing in a classroom.

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Are the kids alright? The answer is complicated. The usual chaotic back-to-school period is now unusual — marked by a COVID-19 delta variant surge and continued vaccine hesitancy in some parts of the country. While limiting children’s exposure to the virus, school administrators, staff and families must also manage educational setbacks and mental health challenges intensified by lockdowns and remote learning.

USC experts weigh in on how educators and caregivers can support K-12 students.

How will schools address mental health challenges?

Pedro Noguera is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. His research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.

“Beyond the logistics related to opening schools safely, it is equally important for educators to be prepared to respond to the academic, social and emotional needs of their students,” Noguera said. “Several studies have shown that many kids experienced significant mental health challenges as a result of the prolonged quarantine and substantial learning loss.”

He added:

  • Fortunately, the federal government has provided additional funds that can be used to address these challenges.
  • The question is whether schools devised strategies to use these funds to respond effectively to student needs. We will learn the answer to that question fairly soon.


Social-emotional needs should be a priority

Julie Marsh is a professor of education policy at USC Rossier who specializes in research on K-12 policy and governance.

“As we start up a new year amidst unwelcome uncertainty and risk, we must continue to prioritize not only addressing the unfinished learning of last year but also the social-emotional needs of students, as well as school staff, teachers, and administrators who have faced their own critically important yet often overlooked challenges,” Marsh said. “Surveys show that parents are particularly concerned about their children’s mental health. The federal government is providing unprecedented amount of funding to support such efforts.”

She added:

  • We must commit to doing more for those hardest hit by the pandemic and by the racial reckoning of the past year and a half.
  • As children return to in-person instruction, schools must attend to long-standing concerns about over-surveillance, low academic expectations and racism.
  • In addition to targeting support to low-income, Black and Latinx communities, we must also attend to the needs of student with disabilities and English learners, for whom remote instruction by and large did not work.


Families and teachers must adjust their expectations

Erica Shoemaker is the chief of clinical services in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“This is not a normal year, and we shouldn’t expect children to adjust smoothly at the beginning of it. We anticipate that children will find the re-entry into school to be anxiety-provoking after so many months at home,” Shoemaker said. “Kids are worried about whether their friends will still like them, whether their teachers will be disappointed if they have learning difficulties and about being exposed to COVID.”

She added:

  • Socially confident kids may adjust quickly and thrive with re-entry into school. Re-adjusting to the hustle and bustle of school may be challenging for shy children who preferred being at home most of the time.
  • Parents and teachers should know that kids may be more anxious, more overwhelmed and more excited than in a usual year. These emotions may manifest in kids being moody, irritable, either more clingy or more defiant, and needing more rest than usual.
  • Adults should try to be gentle with them — and with themselves — during this transition period, which may last well into the fall of this year.


What to do if a child needs help

Dorian Traube is an associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Her research focuses on technological solutions to provide early childhood health, education and parent support services.

“Many children have been living under exceptionally difficult conditions including food insecurity, housing insecurity, health issues and loss of family members to the pandemic,” Traube said. “We need to expect greater-than-normal number of students in distress.”

She added:

  • The first place to seek support is a child’s school. School districts are aware that children may have increased mental health needs and are increasing their mental health support staff.
  • Next is the child’s pediatrician, who can refer families to mental health providers.
  • Finally, there are numerous telehealth programs available now that are covered by health insurance or can be paid for directly. They offer convenience, reduced waitlists and access to more providers.
  • The key is to seek help; don’t wait for concerns to subside, as they may be compounded.


Children’s education was the biggest pandemic hardship for many low-income families

Ashlesha Datar is a senior economist and director of the Program on Children and Families at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, as well as the co-author of a new report on COVID-19 hardships among Los Angeles families in public housing.

“We expected to see food insecurity and income and job stability to be the biggest challenges in this community,” Datar said. “We were pleasantly surprised to see that they were not big hardships, likely due to the federal and local safety net programs. Instead, children’s education was the biggest hardship for these families.”

She added:

  • Children in low-income, minority households faced critical gaps in the technological and parental support that was needed for the remote learning model to work for them.
  • But there was no “safety net” for education.

The report was published online by the Center for the Changing Family at USC Dornsife.


The pandemic exposed the digital divide

Hernán Galperin is an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the principal investigator of a recent study on the digital divide in Los Angeles.

“There’s an opportunity here to leverage the lessons of the pandemic and extend solutions beyond the pandemic,” Galperin said. “For students to succeed, families need access to computers, reliable broadband and the ability for parents to participate in the learning process. That participation involves close communication with teachers, supporting students with homework and monitoring their progress. These are key elements for student success in the digital age.”

The USC-California Emerging Technology Fund survey on statewide broadband adoption found:

  • The share of K-12 families connected to broadband through a computer device jumped from 86% in 2019 to 93% in 2021, driven largely by school or district programs put in place after the onset of the pandemic.
  • However, the transition to remote learning was challenging for many families, in particular for Latinx families whose primary language is Spanish.


For additional experts on K-12 and COVID-19 safety precautions, please see “A COVID Delta Wave Begins… and then Schools Reopen.”

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