5 priorities for reopening with equity and mental health care

These priorities will serve to reinforce plans leaders have already made or give them ideas for new initiatives
By: | March 26, 2021

Bringing a “return to normal” mindset to the reopening of schools will likely not be in the best interests of mental health and social justice.

Students and staff, particularly those from underrepresented and low-income communities, are coping with the twin traumas of COVID and systemic racism, says Paul Hyry-Dermith, director of Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition, a program of the Boston-area community treatment  provider, Brookline Center for Community Mental Health.

“Among the pandemic’s greatest impacts is the deterioration of mental health among students, particularly for students of color, students of families with low-incomes, and students in families directly impacted by COVID,” Hyry-Dermith says.

“Bringing students back to school will succeed only if mental health and equity issues are centered from the start,” he adds.

More from DA: What parents are saying about school a year into the pandemic

District and building leaders can instead rethink school to more equitably address community health and well-being while also continuing to meet academic demands.

In its report, “This is the Time to Lead with Mental Health and Equity in Mind,” the Bridge program leaders identify five priorities for reopening that accomodate a district’s diverse cultures and communities.

These priorities will serve to reinforce plans leaders have already made or give them ideas for new initiatives:

  1. Make a comprehensive plan for the well-being of the whole community: Conduct regular non-academic check-ins with students to assess well-being and provide timley interventions; prioritize care for the highest-need community members.
  2. Focus on equity, all the time: Activate or reactivate school- and district-level equity teams, and provide professional development that encourages educators to examine unconscious bias and systemic racism. Develop plans for changing these structures.
  3. Lead boldly and intentionally for transition: Publicize efforts to rethink long-standing approaches to schooling, including staff roles, schedules, and curricula. Hold forums to gather community feedback about these initiatives.
  4. Promote and practice self care, starting with the adults: Organize professional learning that focuses on self- and collective care, including concepts such as self-compassion, setting boundaries, self-regulating, and finding opportunities for connection and creativity. Provide similar opportunities for families and students.
  5. Model moderation through 2020-21 and beyond: Demanding that teachers and students meet the same standards during COVID as in prior years really means they are being asked to exceed expectations as they learn in new ways, in different environments and with little contact with peers. Moderation means the educators must avoid excess or extremes as students and communities re-emerge from the pandemic.