By Sam Drysdale
STATE HOUSE, NOV. 22, 2022…..The state’s top education officials warned Tuesday that Massachusetts schools still have a long way to go when it comes to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to the mental health one student health.
“We have just begun the process of learning recovery for all our students and we must continue that effort in the years to come,” Education Secretary James Peyser said at a hearing of the Joint Education Committee.
While the declining academic performance of students across the country was documented in students’ standardized test scores — and were part of the discussion at the committee hearing — educators and officials also focused on the emotional well-being of Massachusetts students and how socially emotional they have learning losses contributed to academic decline.
“I think the biggest misstep we made last year when we returned to school at the start of the 21/22 school year was that we were so hoping to return to some sense of normality that we didn’t expect it amount of dysregulation that we would encounter,” Revere Superintendent Dianne Kelly said in a speech to a panel of superintendents from across the state.
Education officials saw a “dramatic rise” in mental health issues among students during periods of distance learning, including “feelings of isolation, depression, suicidal thoughts and separation,” Peyser said.
Primary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said that when students returned to schools in person and full-time last spring, the department asked schools to “first and foremost” check with students about their mental and physical well-being .
“We knew we had to address our children’s most basic needs first: food security, home security, and social emotional well-being so they could return to school ready to learn,” Riley said.
Kelly said that increasing instructional time built into the school day to make up for lost time when students were studying virtually at home “may not be the most effective use of time for our students.”
“Participating in joyful learning activities and building a community between students and staff who take time to process difficult situations will make students better able to successfully complete their regular schoolwork,” she said.
DESE has released over $13 million in mental health funding through state and federal grants and has increased the number of specialized support workers such as psychologists, nurses, counselors, adjustment counselors, and social workers in schools by 7 percent in recent years. said Riley.
Also on the table is over $1.6 billion in federal funding for emergency education — about 10 percent of which will be used to alleviate mental and behavioral health problems, Peyser said Tuesday. So far, schools have tapped only about $965 million, or about 37 percent, of that $2.6 billion emergency relief pot for elementary and secondary schools.
In her pitch to lawmakers, Kelly said that since the COVID-19 pandemic, school systems are still using standardized tests to measure success “as if nothing were different,” resulting in schools not having enough time for the mental well-being of the students.
“We teach educators, students and staff that the test is the most important thing. Schools won’t spend enough time trying to achieve balance if they’re only being evaluated and measured in one direction,” she said.
Kelly added that Massachusetts’ state-wide standardized tests are broader than required by federal law and test more grades.
“These are areas where the legislature and the primary and secondary education board could make changes that would ease some of the pressure on schools and give schools more time to focus on mental health needs,” he said you.