Position on Reopening Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic

January 31, 2021 – The benefits of being physically present at school with caring adults and peers for our country’s youth cannot be overstated. The Jed Foundation (JED) recognizes that without safe and engaging places to be during the school day, the nation’s youth, many of them already vulnerable, are increasingly at risk for serious negative social and emotional consequences. While schools have always played a vital role in children’s social and emotional well-being, the need for the safety, stability, and resources they provide has never been more critical. In some communities, schools serve as one of the only places where children and, sometimes whole families, have access to vital, in-person behavioral health and learning support services. These benefits may be particularly relevant for students from under-resourced communities, who rely on schools for some meals and access to health services, and whose access to virtual learning can be limited by the absence of available computers and/or internet. In the current landscape, nearly 20% of teens cannot complete schoolwork at home because they do not have a computer or internet connection.1

JED also recognizes that schools must carefully balance the physical health and well-being of students and staff as they struggle with the decision to reopen. Each school and community must carefully weigh physical safety with the deepening emotional and social needs of youth, their families and the community at large. This requires regular and accurate tracking of current community-level COVID-19 infection rates and emerging vectors, robust strategies for reducing transmission rates in the surrounding community, and development of effective strategies for assuring that all CDC recommended mitigation measures for within school settings are followed.

While we applaud the progress being made on assuring that school staff have access to the COVID vaccine and recognize the role this will play in creating safe environments for reopening schools, we urge schools and communities to do all they can to act quickly in finding ways to accommodate at least some form of in-person learning as a means of addressing the accelerating mental health toll the pandemic is taking on youth and families. Broad professional consensus and emerging data suggest that the pandemic is significantly and steadily compromising youth and parent mental health, including suicide and substance misuse, which necessitates speedy and responsive action. Not only will numbers of affected youth and families continue to rise, the most lasting and damaging  effects will most afflict our nation’s most vulnerable families and communities.2,3 With each day that passes, the number of children and youth experiencing grief due to the loss of a loved one, anxiety because of the disruption and turmoil of the past year, or increased stress and worry if family members are out of work grows. It is imperative that we use every tool available to assist schools and communities to balance safety concerns of school staff and students with the increasingly dire mental health needs and risk levels experienced by youth.

JED believes that with responsive and responsible action, schools and communities can balance safety concerns for all with the need to assure that children have safe and productive places to be. Available evidence suggests that risk of infection in school settings is generally low. It is also clear, however, that children can and do contract and spread the virus and that COVID-19 infections in children and youth are often difficult to detect.4 This means that close coordination between schools, local, state, and/or tribal public health authorities is critical. It also means that decision makers will need to be very thoughtful about how to best balance virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning in ways that ensure equitable access and cultural sensitivity for all youth and families. Toward this end, JED urges schools and communities to make use of tools for creating and sustaining safe decisions such as the CDC’s regularly updated guidance and dynamic decision making tool.5

Because even the most careful planning and decision making processes can quickly be derailed by upticks in local infection rates, contingency planning for such events will be essential. When mitigation strategies are effectively deployed, risk of spread in community and school settings is decreased.

JED is fully committed to supporting schools and communities in responding as carefully and responsibly to the acute demands of this time.  Please reach out to us for resources and with questions about meeting the mental health needs of students.

Resources:

The Jed Foundation offers digital and downloadable resources that help support the mental health and prevent suicide risk for adolescents and young adults.

National Association of School Psychologists (2020). School Reentry Considerations: Supporting Student Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Mental Behavioral Health (MBH) Amidst COVID-19.  Retrieved from: https://www.nasponline.org/

National Association of School Psychologists. (2020). Providing effective social–emotional and behavioral supports after COVID-19 closures: Universal screening and Tier 1 interventions. Retrieved from:https://www.nasponline.org/

National Association of School Psychologists. (2020). Equity Considerations During and After COVID-19 School Closures. Retrieved from:https://www.nasponline.org/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255; https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/

The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide has short trainings focused on successfully transition youth back to school and trainings on suicide prevention in education.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has diverse resources aimed at supporting adolescents and the adults who care for them and teach them at this page: https://www.sprc.org/populations/adolescents

References:

1Safe Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic. (2021, January 5). Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Return-to-School-During-COVID-19.aspx

2Leeb RT, Bitsko RH, Radhakrishnan L, Martinez P, Njai R, Holland KM. Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1675–1680. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6945a3

3Honein MA, Barrios LC, Brooks JT. Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection. JAMA. Published online January 26, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.0374 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2775875

4Marques de Miranda, D., da Silva Athanasio, B., Sena Oliveira, A. C., & Simoes-E-Silva, A. C. (2020). How is COVID-19 pandemic impacting mental health of children and adolescents?. International journal of disaster risk reduction : IJDRR, 51, 101845. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.101845

5Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s considerations. (2021, January 8). Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html.

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