- A YouthTruth survey of more than 200,000 students in 585 schools across 19 states shows an increase in the number of learners reporting feelings of depression, anxiety and stress as barriers to their learning, while fewer students report having adults available to talk to when experiencing such barriers than in spring 2020, in the immediate wake of COVID-19 school closures.
- The percentage of students who said poor mental health was a barrier to learning increased from 39% in spring 2020 to 49% in spring 2021, while the percentage reporting they had an adult available to talk to decreased from 46% to 39%. And while 43% said many or all of their teachers made an effort to reach out in spring 2020, only 28% said the same in spring 2021.
- Female and nonbinary students remain more likely to say mental health is a barrier, at 60% and 83% respectively, compared to 35% of male students. Other barriers to student learning include safety concerns both in and out of school, with 16% of Black students saying they don't feel safe at school, and 13% saying they don't feel safe at home, compared to only 9% and 7% of non-Black students saying the same.
Shortly after schools closed due to the pandemic in March 2020, there was a reported uptick in districts asking for SEL support. Teachers and principals reported an extra push to knock on doors, make phone calls, conduct welfare checks and track down students they feared were facing unideal and challenging physical or psychological conditions at home.
According to the YouthTruth report, students' responses to the organization showed while "it is clear that teachers made a considerable effort in the immediate wake of the pandemic to understand students' lives outside of school, that focus on students’ non-academic identities, however, has waned over time."
"We definitely see over all of our time periods that the availability of an adult to talk to when feeling stress has seen a steady decline over time, while that feeling of anxiety and depression has really gone up," said Sonya Heisters, deputy director of the nonprofit, in a press conference. "So this is an opportunity for educators and education funders — all of us as adults — to think about how we can close this gap."
Considering some places have missed nearly a year of in-person learning, and students have fallen behind academically — some up to six months behind in both math and reading — academic recovery has been a priority in school reopenings and summer interventions. However, government and district leaders also cited students' mental health as among the top priorities when schools reopened their doors.
There also seemed to be a split among educators as to the best approach when students returned in-person: Should they dive into academic recovery or ease students back into the classroom with a focus on SEL? Even the term "learning loss" and diagnostic assessments, some said, could lead to anxiety and unnecessary pressure among students who were already burnt out from a year of worrying.
Meanwhile, others expressed frustration over the lack of concrete summer school plans — a problem further complicated by funding delays — and meaningful academic supports in some places. While schools invest federal and state funds into both academic and SEL recovery, experts have stressed taking into consideration community, parent and student input on their needs.
"It's not solely about academics. It's really about building relationships and connections, because we know we can't leave that to chance in this distance learning model," said Superintendent Susan Enfield from Washington's Highline Public Schools in November 2020. "A student doesn't need a deep, meaningful relationship with every adult in their school. It just takes one."