In 1918, children started singing a new skipping rhyme on American playgrounds: I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened up the window, and in flew Enza.
Over the next two years, the influenza pandemic would turn those children’s world upside down, claiming more than a half million lives in the United States. Many years later, some survivors would recount childhood memories of grief, isolation, economic privation and fear, but children’s emotional scars went largely unacknowledged and untreated.
A century later, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the mental health of children and youths is attracting more attention, but dwindling state resources and scant information could hamper plans to address that impact. More and better data about the pandemic’s mental health effects could help educators attend to students’ needs, even as budgets contract.
There is evidence that the pandemic threatens students’ mental health, but data are scarce. Early surveys suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening children’s emotional well-being. In May, 29% of U.S. parents reported that isolation was harming their children’s emotional or mental health, and another 37% anticipated that lockdowns would have that effect if they continued. In June, 30% of high schoolers said they were feeling depressed more often. More specific data are still scarce, however. For example, there is little information on the impact on students in communities of color, which have suffered a disproportionate share of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Census data point to economic distress that could worsen mental health challenges. According to frequent Census Bureau surveys, millions of Americans worry that they cannot afford their housing payments or provide enough food. Households with children younger than 18 are most likely to express such worries, as are households with low incomes and households headed by people of color.
Data suggest that schools lack the mental health staff they need. Federal data suggest that school counselors, psychologists and social workers might confront overwhelming caseloads as the pandemic continues. In the 2018-19 school year, there were roughly 425 students for every school counselor, which exceeds the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio of 250 to 1. Twenty-three percent of students attended schools with no psychologists and 53% attended schools with no social workers.
The pandemic may be worsening such shortages. Recent data on jobs postings suggest that schools and districts are hiring far fewer counselors, psychologists and social workers than in previous years.
States can give educators better data to support their students’ needs. As the need for mental health services grows amid staff shortages, educators need better data on their students’ emotional well-being to ensure they can identify and address problems more effectively. Fortunately, states can help educators get the data they need while enacting strict protocols to protect students’ privacy.
- School climate surveys, which most states now encourage or require, can help schools gauge their students’ emotional health during and after the pandemic.
- Mental health screenings can help schools and communities gather early information on students’ needs. Delaware and Michigan included mental health screenings in their school reopening plans.
- Research partnerships can enhance states’ or districts’ data gathering capacity. The Houston Education Research Consortium created the Gulf Coast Coronavirus Community Impact Survey, which provides monthly data on topics including family well-being.
- By linking state education, health and social services data, states can take better advantage of their own data systems to promote students’ well-being. In Michigan, that strategy allowed the state to distribute pandemic electronic benefit transfer cards to families of students who needed food.
- Professional development can help educators interpret and use the data that emerge from these efforts while protecting their students’ privacy.
In many ways, we are more fortunate than our predecessors in 1918. The past century has equipped us with technology and tools they could never have imagined. Data systems may be among the most important.