By JOCELYN GECKER and DYLAN LOVAN

CECILIA, Ky. (AP) — For fourth-grade student Leah Rainey, the school day now begins with what her teacher calls an “emotional recording.”

“Good to see you. How are you?” chirps a happy voice on the screen of his laptop. This one asks him to click on an emoji corresponding to his state of mind: Happy. Sad. Concerned. Angry. Frustrated. Calm. Idiot. Tiredness.

Depending on the answer, 9-year-old Leah receives advice from a cartoon avatar on managing her mood and a few additional questions: Did you have lunch? Are you injured or sick? Everything okay at home? Is anyone at school naughty? Today, Leah chooses “silly”, but says she struggled with sadness during e-learning.

At Lakewood Elementary School, all 420 students will start their days the same way this year. The rural school in Kentucky is one of thousands across the country using technology to screen students’ moods and alert teachers to anyone in trouble.

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In some ways, this year’s back-to-school will restore a degree of pre-pandemic normalcy: Most districts have lifted mask mandates, dropped COVID vaccine requirements, and ended social distancing and quarantine rules.

But many of the longer-term impacts of the pandemic remain a troubling reality for schools. Among them: the detrimental effects of isolation and remote learning on the emotional well-being of children.

Student mental health reached crisis levels last year, and the pressure on schools to find solutions has never been greater. Districts across the country are using federal money from the pandemic to hire more mental health specialists, roll out new coping tools and expand the curriculum that prioritizes emotional health.

Yet some parents don’t believe schools should be involved in mental health at all. So-called social-emotional learning, or SEL, has become the latest policy flashpoint, with conservatives saying schools use it to promote progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality, or that the emphasis on well-being is attracting the attention of academics.

But at schools like Lakewood, educators say helping students manage their emotions and stress will benefit them in the classroom and throughout their lives.

The school, located in a farming community an hour’s drive south of Louisville, used federal funds to create “break” corners in each classroom. Students can browse through a “self-regulation kit” with advice on deep breathing, squishy stress balls and acupuncture rings, school counselor Shelly Kerr said. The school plans to build a “reset room” this fall, part of an emerging national trend to create on-campus sanctuaries where students can go to decompress and talk with a counselor.

The online filter for students used by Lakewood, called Closegap, helps teachers identify shy and quiet children who might need to talk and would otherwise go unnoticed.

Closegap founder Rachel Miller launched the online platform in 2019 with a few schools and saw interest surge after the pandemic. This year, she said, more than 3,600 US schools will use the technology, which offers free and premium versions.

“We are finally beginning to recognize that school is about more than just teaching children reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the National Association of School Superintendents. Just as free lunch programs are based on the idea that a starving child cannot learn, more and more schools are embracing the idea that a cluttered or troubled mind cannot concentrate on schoolwork. , did he declare.

The pandemic has amplified the fragility of mental health among young Americans, who have been experiencing an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for years, experts say. A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44% of high school students said they had experienced “lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness” during the pandemic, with girls and LGBTQ youth reporting the highest levels. high rates of poor mental health and suicide attempts. .

If there is a silver lining, the pandemic has raised awareness of the crisis and helped de-stigmatize discussions about mental health, while drawing attention to schools’ shortcomings in its management. President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced more than $500 million to expand mental health services in schools across the country, adding to federal and state funds that have flowed into schools to address the needs of the era of the pandemic.

Still, many are skeptical, the schools’ responses are sufficient.

“All of these opportunities and resources are temporary,” said junior Claire Chi, who attends State College Area High School in central Pennsylvania. Last year, her school added emergency counseling and therapy dogs, among other supports, but most of that help lasted a day or two, Chi said. And it’s “not really a mental health investment for students.” This year, the school says it has added more counselors and is planning mental health training for all 10th graders.

Some critics, including many conservative parents, don’t want to see mental health support in schools in the first place. Asra Nomani, a mother from Fairfax County, Virginia, says schools are using the mental health crisis as a “Trojan horse” to introduce liberal ideas about sexual and racial identity. She is also concerned that schools lack the expertise to deal with student mental illness.

“Socio-emotional well-being has become an excuse to intervene in children’s lives in the most intimate ways that are both dangerous and irresponsible,” Nomani said, “because they are in the hands of people who are not trained professionals.”

Despite unprecedented funding, schools are struggling to hire counselors, mirroring shortages in other U.S. industries.

Goshen Junior High School in northwest Indiana is struggling to fill the vacancy of a counselor who left last year amid student anxiety and other behavioral issues. “out of the ordinary,” said Jan Desmarais-Morse, one of the two counselors who remained at the school. , with a workload of 500 students each.

“One person trying to meet the needs of 500 students?” said Desmarais-Morse. “It’s impossible.”

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per school counselor, which few states come close to achieving.

For the 2020-21 school year, only two states — New Hampshire and Vermont — met that goal, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Some states face incredibly high ratios: Arizona has an average of one counselor for every 716 students; in Michigan, 1 to 638; and in Minnesota, 1 in 592.

Also in Indiana, the school town of Hammond won a grant to hire clinical therapists at its 17 schools but was unable to fill most new jobs, Superintendent Scott Miller said. “Schools steal from other schools. There just aren’t enough workers for everyone. And despite more funding, schools’ salaries can’t compete with private consulting firms, which are also overwhelmed and trying to hire more staff.

Another challenge for schools: identifying children in difficulty before they are in an emotional crisis. At the Houston Independent School District, one of the largest in the nation with 277 schools and nearly 200,000 students, students are asked every morning to raise their fingers to show how they feel. A finger means a child is in deep pain; five means she or he feels good.

“It’s about identifying your bushfires early in the day,” said Sean Ricks, senior director of crisis response for the district.

Houston teachers are now teaching mindfulness classes, with ocean sounds streamed via YouTube, and a Chihuahua named Luci and a cockapoo named Omi have joined the district’s crisis team.

Grant funding helped Houston build relaxation rooms, known as Thinkeries, in 10 schools last year, at a cost of about $5,000 each. District data shows that campuses with Thinkeries, which sport bean bag chairs and warm-colored walls, saw a 62% decrease in calls to a crisis line last year, Ricks said. The district is building more this year.

But the rooms themselves are no panacea. For quiet rooms to work, schools need to teach students to recognize when they are feeling angry or frustrated. Then they can use the space to decompress before their emotions flare up, said Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, executive director of Counseling in Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools strengthen mental health services.

During the final days of summer vacation, a “well space” at University High School in Irvine, California, was getting the finishing touches from an artist who painted a mural of a giant moon above the mountains. Potted succulents, jute rugs, Buddha-like statuettes, and an egg-shaped hanging chair brought an unschool feel. When school starts this week, the room will be staffed with a full-time counselor or mental health specialist.

The goal is to normalize the idea of ​​asking for help and give students a place to reset. “If they can refocus and refocus,” Blakely said, “then they can, after a short break, return to their classrooms and prepare for deeper learning.”

For more back-to-school coverage, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/back-to-school

Gecker reported from San Francisco. Heather Hollingsworth, Associated Press writer, in Mission, Kansas; Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis and Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania also contributed reporting. Data journalist Kavish Harjai contributed from Los Angeles.

Rodgers, Schultz and Harjai are members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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