More mental health services advocated for students and teachers

Experts point to pandemic-related challenges as schools prepare to reopen
The coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of pressure on students and teachers, changing daily routines and teaching styles. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

The coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of pressure on students and teachers, changing daily routines and teaching styles. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The back to class list this upcoming year for Atlanta-area schools, many educators, physicians and counselors say, must include more mental health services.

School leaders and others have held many meetings in recent weeks to prepare for the unique mental health challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic as many of the students and teachers return to classrooms for the first time in more than a year.

As metro Atlanta’s school districts prepare for in-person learning, the return for many students may be daunting, experts say.

“Some students and families may have a lot of fears about returning, fears about the risk of COVID, about being around large groups of people,” said Dr. Jennifer Holton, assistant professor of medicine and program director for Emory University’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Program.

Changes in sleep or eating patterns are among the signs students may be having trouble adjusting to their learning environments, Holton said. She recommended parents and guardians prepare children by creating a gradual return to a pre-pandemic schedule and connecting students with their friends before going back to school.

Some federal research shows about 30% of high school students nationwide last year felt depressed more frequently. A similar percentage of parents feared that isolation was harming their children’s emotional or mental health.

Education experts have long complained schools don’t have an adequate number of counselors, including for mental health. Emory University experts told reporters Thursday they believe a share of federal funds doled out to schools a few months ago will provide additional counseling and other resources. Georgia’s share is about $4.25 billion and some school systems have said they plan to use part of their allocation for mental health services.

State education officials said late Thursday they plan to use $2.25 million from the federal funds to offer additional mental health trainings and resources for school districts. They also plan to create a Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator position, along with another mental health position that will coordinate training for school staff across the state.

Additionally, state officials said they plan to do more collaboration with national, regional and state partners on providing access to training in mental health awareness and crisis intervention, with an increased focus on trauma and resilience as students return to school.

The Emory experts also discussed in detail the need for schools to help special needs students since research shows they have more difficulty learning online.

The best way to help them, said Dr. Veda Johnson, professor of pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine and executive director of the university’s PARTNERS for Equity in Child and Adolescent Health, is “to reinforce the staffing so that you can actually help students catch up and you can address the deficits that they have experienced.”

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