JOCELYN HEKKER and DYLAN LOVAN

CECILIA, Ky. (AP) — For fourth-grader Leah Rainey, the school day begins with what her teacher calls an “emotional check-in.”

“Glad to see you. How are you feeling?” chirps a cheerful voice on the laptop screen. She is asked to click on the emoji that corresponds to her state of mind: Happy. Sad. Worried. Angry. Frustrated. Calm. Silly. Tired.

Depending on the answer, 9-year-old Leah gets advice from a cartoon avatar on managing her mood and a few more questions: Did you eat breakfast? Are you injured or sick? Is everything okay at home? Is someone at school being mean? Today, Leah chooses “silly,” but says she struggled with boredom while studying online.

At Lakewood Elementary, all 420 students will start their days the same way this year. A rural school in Kentucky is one of thousands across the country using the technology to check the mental state of students and alert teachers to any difficulties.

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In some ways, this year’s back-to-school season will return to the pre-pandemic norm, with most districts lifting mask mandates, waiving COVID vaccine requirements and lifting social distancing and quarantine rules.

But many of the longer-term effects of the pandemic remain a troubling reality for schools. Among them: the harmful effects of isolation and distance learning on children’s emotional well-being.

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 pandemic funds to hire more mental health professionals, implement new coping tools and expand curricula that prioritize emotional health.

However, some parents do not believe that schools should be involved in mental health at all. So-called social-emotional learning, or SEL, has become the latest political flashpoint, with conservatives saying schools are using it to promote progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality, or that an emphasis on well-being is distracting 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 south of Louisville, used federal money to create recreation areas in every classroom. School counselor Shelley Kerr said students can check out a “self-regulation kit” with deep breathing tips, squishy stress balls and acupuncture rings. This fall, the school plans to build a “Reset Room” as part of a new national trend to create campus sanctuaries where students can decompress and talk to a counselor.

An online student screening program that Lakewood uses, called Closegap, helps teachers identify shy, quiet kids who might need to be talked to and otherwise go unnoticed.

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

“We’re finally starting to understand that school is about more than just teaching kids to read, write and do math,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the National Association of School Administrators. Just as free lunch programs are based on the idea that a hungry child can’t learn, more and more schools are embracing the idea that a cluttered or restless mind can’t focus on schoolwork, he said.

Experts say the pandemic has exacerbated the fragility of the mental health of America’s youth, who have experienced an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for years. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44% of high school students said they felt “constant feelings of sadness or hopelessness” during the pandemic, with girls and LGBTQ youth reporting the highest rates of poor mental health and suicide attempts.

The pandemic has raised awareness of the crisis and helped de-escalate the conversation about mental health, as well as draw attention to schools’ shortcomings in dealing with it. President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced more than $500 million to expand mental health services in the nation’s schools, adding to federal and state money pouring into schools to deal with pandemic-era needs.

However, many skeptical responses from schools are enough.

“All these opportunities and resources are temporary,” said junior Claire Chee, 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 only a day or two, Chee said. And it’s “not exactly an investment in student mental health.” This year, the school says it has added more counselors and plans to offer mental health education to 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 in Fairfax County, Virginia, says schools are using the mental health crisis as a “Trojan horse” to instill liberal ideas about sexual and racial identity. She also worries that schools lack the expertise to deal with mental illness in students.

“Socio-emotional well-being has become an excuse to intervene in children’s lives in the most intimate way, which is 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 American industries.

Goshen High School in northwest Indiana struggled to fill the vacancy of a counselor who left last year when student anxiety and other behavioral problems were “off the charts,” said Ian Desmarais-Morse, one of two counselors who stayed at school. , with a load of 500 students each.

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

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per school counselor, which few states approach.

In the 2020-2021 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 staggeringly high ratios: Arizona averages one counselor for every 716 students; in Michigan, 1 to 638; and in Minnesota, 1 to 592.

Also in Indiana, Hammond School City won a grant to hire clinical therapists at all 17 of its schools, but was unable to fill most of the new openings, Superintendent Scott Miller said. “Schools steal from other schools. There are simply not enough workers.” And despite more funding, school salaries can’t compete with private counseling services, which are also overwhelmed and trying to hire more staff.

Another challenge for schools is to identify children who are experiencing difficulties before they are in an emotional crisis. In the Houston Independent School District, one of the nation’s largest with 277 schools and nearly 200,000 students, students are asked to raise their fingers every morning to show how they feel. One finger means that the child is in a lot of pain; five means she or he feels great.

“It’s finding bushfires early in the day,” said Shawn Ricks, senior manager of emergency response.

Now, Houston teachers are teaching mindfulness lessons with ocean sounds played via YouTube, and a chihuahua named Lucy and a cockapoo named Omi have joined the district’s crisis response team.

Grant funding helped Houston build break rooms, known as Thinkeries, at 10 schools last year at a cost of about $5,000 each. According to district data, campuses with Thinkeries, which have beanbag chairs and warm-colored walls, saw a 62% drop in calls to the crisis line last year, Ricks said. This year, the district is building more.

But the numbers themselves are not a panacea. For calming rooms to work, schools must 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.

In the final days of summer break, the Well Space at University High School in Irvine, California, was getting the finishing touches by an artist who painted a mural of a giant moon above the mountains. Potted succulents, jute rugs, Buddha-like figurines and a hanging egg chair created an unschool feel. When school starts this week, there should be a full-time counselor or mental health professional in the room.

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, “they can go back to their classrooms after a short break and be ready for deeper learning.”

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

Hecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; Arlie Rogers in Indianapolis and Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pa. also contributed reporting. Data reporter Kavish Harjai contributed from Los Angeles.

Rogers, Schultz and Harjai are members of the Associated Press/Reporting staff for the American Government News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues.

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

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