Schools in the South Bay have upped efforts to help students navigate mental health challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local schools including San Jose Unified School District, East Side Union High School District and Sunrise Middle School have implemented seven key mental health practices, which a recent Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) study described as essential tools for mental health support.
“When we talk about reopening, we first talked about physical safety, and the second priority is addressing wellness,” East Side Union High School District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee told San José Spotlight.
These tools include creating a mentor network and a multi-tiered support system, integrating social-emotional learning in the curriculum, conducting mental health screening and listening to parents and students for feedback.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, thousands of students in the South Bay stayed home for distance learning, and local government and organizations made sure students had laptops and could access the Internet.
“Students have what they need to connect (to classes), but are they connecting? Are they feeling okay? I think the answer is probably no,” Sara Garcia, SVLG director of education told San José Spotlight.
Students across the country are reporting high levels of anxiety, sadness and nervousness due to the pandemic, according to a coalition of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
A need to do better
Creating more space for conversations about mental health and investing in more support for educators are also highlighted in the SVLG study. The project is meant to serve as a toolkit for local schools and to showcase success stories in the South Bay.
Researchers from SVLG interviewed 12 local school officials and five education experts on the best practices to support students’ mental health and wellbeing.
“We know mental health among everyone, but especially with kids, would be an issue and will be of importance as we return to campus,” Garcia said.
To enable this, local schools have received millions in federal funding—with more to come from the state that will go to behavioral health programs. Schools in California have received roughly $21 billion through COVID-related relief funds. Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed a $4 billion package in May for schools to provide behavioral health services to students in upcoming years.
The number of emergency trips because of mental health increased 24% for children between 5 and 11 and 31% for children ages 12 to 17 between 2019 and 2020, according to federal research. Suspected suicide attempt emergency visits among teenage girls also saw a staggering 50.6% increase in 2021 compared to 2019, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
While mental health needs have accelerated over the last few years, the levels of service in California have fallen behind, with many regions lacking an adequate number of providers, a 2019 survey by the California Health Care Foundation found. Two-third of students in the state with major depressive episodes do not get treatment, according to the California Health and Human Services Agency.
Garcia also noted that local schools have started to invest more in their educators’ wellbeing.
“It’s been a huge challenge to be able to do (online learning) and also cope with everything that’s been going on in the world,” Garcia said. “We need to do better by our educators as well and make sure that they’re also accessing that mental health support.”
All hands on deck
For San Jose Unified School District, the largest district in San Jose, it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach, district spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said.
When students were abruptly sent home for distance learning in 2020, district officials made nearly 10,000 calls to make sure at-risk students were not left behind.
“It was purely a welfare check” to make sure that students had access to food, housing and internet, Maddox said. “Then we followed up based on the responses to those calls.”
With families who were hard to reach, the district’s bus drivers would conduct check-ups at their homes, Maddox added.
These direct check-ins help ease students’ and families’ anxiety of returning to in-person learning, the report pointed out.
SJUSD also asked its students to complete a mental health questionnaire last year, which helped officials identify needs further. The district is in the process of doing that again this year, Maddox said.
“We try to get most families to complete it, even if you don’t think there’s a problem,” she said. “Sometimes it’ll flag something that we might want to follow up on.”
An encompassing approach
East Side Union High School District is also exploring new ways to provide behavioral health services to its students.
At the district, therapy could be a one-on-one or a group conversation with a counselor, or students also could address their mental health needs through art therapy and movement classes. Each campus also has a wellness center, Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Teresa Marquez said.
“It was important for us to create spaces where students would be able to at least take a breath,” Marquez said, adding that the centers have comforting spaces like a couch with pillows and spaces for a punching bag if students need to release frustration.
Students are then connected with social workers afterward. The district added 11 more social workers over the pandemic, Marquez said.
ESUHSD is now looking into expanding its telehealth capacity, as needs grow.
“Mental health happens 24 hours, seven days a week,” she said. “So for us, it’s expanding resources through telehealth, community-based organizations and more partners.”