In 1969, Dr. Thomas Harris published a book titled, “I’m OK — You’re OK.”
Quite simply in 2023, not everyone is OK. Many of our students, staff and other adults are not OK.
Last week Dr. Nicholas Covino, president of William James College, presented on the mental health challenges that have resulted from or been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. And the message resonated. We had 40 participants — parents, teachers, leaders and counselors — who joined and shared stories of their learners who continue to struggle.
Dr. Covino shared a statistic from the CDC that over 25% of adults report most days they feel so stressed they cannot function. That percentage skyrockets to 46% of adults under the age of 35. These are our parents and teachers.
In April of 2022, the CDC reported 44% of students report persistently feeling sad and hopeless. These are our students.
I opened the conversation with Dr. Covino by noting that when we first returned to in-person schooling from COVID, the drumbeat was “learning loss, learning loss, learning loss.” And that was an impact but not the only impact.
To suggest that we are going to eliminate learning loss without attending to the mental health challenges demonstrates a significant lack of empathy, understanding and appreciation for where we are and what we continue to face. We can remediate learning loss, not eliminate it. And we are. We cannot eliminate mental health issues. But we can provide support and resources to meet each person where they are — and that is in a wide range of places.
Parent after parent shared the personal impact still being felt by their learners. One parent shared a story about a student who had mostly remote learning for most of grades 7 and 8 at MVMS and arrived at the high school confronted with the immediate expectation that she would be ready to tackle high school level work as though nothing ever happened. The trauma of COVID exacerbated the stress and anxiety of lost learning. Students cannot learn if they do not feel safe and supported.
We are fortunate to have a dedicated mental health team of counselors, social workers, psychologists in our schools — supported by teachers and administrators — who work tirelessly to connect students with the resources and services they need to overcome stress, anxiety, depression, trauma and other obstacles to learning.
Before the pandemic — and certainly since then — the team has helped build school cultures focused on the social-emotional development of every student. We also know that neither our internal resources nor our external partners cannot fully address the growing demand for services, given the soaring increase in mental health challenges.
Even more concerning, we also are at risk of our already stretched capacity being reduced by fiscal constraints — just when we need these services most. As a district we are facing a potential loss of 33 positions, if the upcoming override does not pass. That would mean fewer programs and resources to attend to students’ social and emotional needs. And asking our teachers and educators to do more with less when they, too, are struggling is simply unconscionable.
I was speaking with a veteran elementary educator this week and asked her how her year has gone.
She said, “I have never worked so hard and felt like I accomplished so little. It is a struggle every day.”
We need to take a step back and see exactly where we are and what is happening. Our teachers need it; our students deserve it. Together, we can do more to address this troubling trend.
John Buckey is the superintendent of the Marblehead Public Schools.