"Not Just Face Masks and Hand Sanitizer, but Counseling and Care"
While school district leaders across the country urgently seek protective gear and cleaning supplies, redesign classrooms and bus schedules to enable social distancing, and take other preventative safety measures, they must also place an equally high priority on protecting the mental, emotional, and social health of students--an issue often overlooked in the current debate about school re-openings.
"We must treat the COVID-19 crisis like a natural disaster or any other incident with mass casualties, but on a much wider scale," said Robert Boyd, president of the School Based Health Alliance. "Schools simply cannot reopen if they do not have the resources to provide adequate care for both the physical and mental health needs of their students and staffs."
The Alliance advises educators and health officials to model their COVID-19 responses after how communities organize in the wake of traumatic events such as hurricanes, tornados, school shootings, and other major crises that wreak multiple levels of destruction on the entire community. And as with a violent disaster, some of the resulting harm from the pandemic is visible and immediately apparent, but other damage may not be visible. Students are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, hunger, and sleep problems. They may be struggling in online learning environments, worrying about falling behind in their classes, or feeling lost without their normal routines. Many report being overwhelmed by the intense social isolation, separation from close friends and teachers, and ongoing uncertainty about what the future will bring. They may be grieving loss of a parent's job, their home, or loved ones struck down by COVID-19.
Together, educators and health officials must take swift action, identifying and assembling local coalitions of key community leaders, working together to mitigate the physical, mental, and emotional toll that COVID-19 has taken on the wellbeing of students, educators and their families. To be effective, these coalitions should bring together psychologists, counselors, community support groups, faith-based leaders, bereavement specialists, chaplains and other mental health specialists alongside educators and health leaders. Educators should think big picture and broadly as they ask themselves: "Who do I need on my COVID-19 rapid response team?"
As these teams assess their community's capacity to respond and develop plans of action, school-based health centers are available and eager to play an essential role as partners. Across the nation, there are more than 2,500 school-based health centers that sit at the critical intersection of education and health, connecting children and their families to accessible, affordable healthcare. Not only do school-based health centers help their patients manage chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes, they also serve them with mental health services such as counseling and resources.
Additionally, as schools remain in fluctuating states of operation--ranging from completely open, to entirely remote, to a mix of in-person and remote learning--school based health centers have the ability to provide ongoing care and support through telehealth services, home visits, and other creative alternatives such as drive through visits.
If we want all schools to reopen safely--and remain open--Congress must immediately pass a federal COVID-19 response package that gives schools adequate financial resources, enabling them to provide both physical as well mental health services, working in partnership with other community organizations to reach the students with the greatest needs. Additionally, school-based health centers must be among the institutions identified as eligible to receive federal stimulus appropriations, both for the purpose of addressing immediate as well as longer-term community needs.
"At the School Based Health Alliance, we know that schools are more than just places of education, they are pillars of community, providing essential services to students, their families, and educators," Boyd added. "But as the nation tackles one of the most serious public health, economic, and social crises of our time, we must ensure that communities have the resources they need to address the urgent health and educational needs of children and their families."
About the School-Based Health Alliance