The Pandemic Windfall Must Support Students' Mental Health, Too

May 10, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Brandon Lewis

This fall, most students will return to school full time. But the kids are not alright. 

Students’ return to the classroom comes after more than a year in a crisis which left millions unemployed nationwide, nearly 600,000 Americans dead, and at least 3 million children without access to education services. Research shows that many students feel more stressed, isolated, and depressed than they did prior to the pandemic.

Many students are struggling and may be more likely to misbehave making them likely targets for disciplinary action. But, these social and emotional challenges students face will be exacerbated if schools rely on typical punitive systems (e.g, school-based police, suspension, restraint, corporal punishment) to regulate student behavior. Instead, [pullquote]schools should seize the opportunity to use federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to invest in long-term restorative, wraparound services that holistically support students.[/pullquote]

Punitive practices are inequitable, inadequately address problems, and can have long-lasting, negative impacts on a student’s trajectory. For years, researchers have found that K-12 students who encountered punitive school discipline policies were more likely to suffer academically, drop out and be involved in the criminal legal system later in life.

In recent years, some states and districts began taking steps to reform their punitive systems, but it was too late for far too many students. In the 2015-16 academic year, 290,600 students were referred to law enforcement agencies or arrested, and 120,800 students were expelled, with or without educational services. [pullquote position="right"]These trends persist today and disproportionately impact Black and Latinx students.[/pullquote]

States and districts have a unique opportunity to take action and provide students with additional services that support instead of punish. ARPA provides a staggering $123 billion for state and local education agencies and includes an increased focus on student wellbeing and social and emotional learning. The bill requires that at least 20% of local education agency funds, or $22 billion, be used to address learning loss through evidence-based interventions that respond to students’ academic and social, and emotional needs. States finally have an opportunity to use federal dollars to make significant investments in alternatives to punitive systems that can better support students’ SEL needs. 

States and districts can use ARPA funds to make high-leverage investments in trained personnel providing direct services such as counselors, community advocates and social workers. Funds can also be leveraged to invest in SEL programs like CASEL or other evidence-based initiatives that help educators teach positive behavior and give students tools to navigate challenges. Ultimately, [pullquote]any investments districts make in student supports will be strengthened by ongoing family engagement and input.[/pullquote]

District and state leaders are facing a lot of challenges but must focus on students’ SEL needs and to avoid status quo punitive systems that perpetuate systemic inequity. Unless students feel physically and emotionally safe and protected at school, any efforts to improve academic performance will fall short. 

Brandon Lewis

Brandon Lewis is an analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on changing education and life outcomes for underserved children. He is the co-author of a new brief on the importance of schools' role in preventing incarceration. Previously, Brandon was an education policy manager with the National Urban League where he worked to shape the League’s educational equity agenda and analysis of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Feed