Schools add wellness days to support mental health and block burnout

Leaders are moving to make mental health a priority throughout the school year

Teachers in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools were recently asked what administrators could do to reduce spiking stress levels without taking the focus off student-centered instruction.

The North Carolina district is grappling with a challenge that’s disrupted schools across the country. Because substitutes are scarce, much of teachers’ time for planning is being swallowed up by having to cover for colleagues absent due to COVID infections or quarantines.

That stress has been added to the anxiety many staff members are already suffering as a result of direct impacts of the pandemic, Superintendent Nyah Hamlett says. “I was hearing from employees who were saying ‘It’s only September or October and it feels like March,” she says. “They’re just exhausted.”

Hamlett and her team conducted a staff survey and identified some quick wins to relieve the mounting stress, including new retention and recruitment bonuses for most staff of $1,000 this year and $500 next year. The district also added wellness days to the calendar and extra “fall break” time during the week of Thanksgiving. Wellness days are workdays during which teachers can catch up with lesson planning and other tasks while students are off. Principals have created lists of suggested tasks teachers can accomplish on wellness days, Hamlett says.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s school board also now allows employees to work remotely in certain circumstances and permits leave for employees who have to stay with children who have been quarantined by Chapel Hill-Carrboro or another district.

More from DA: Here’s one time-saving way schools are trying to prevent teacher burnout

Students can also participate in their own Wellness Wednesdays, which have already been incorporated into instruction at Carrboro High School. The first wellness day featured frisbee and flag football games, outdoor art activities and a “puppy station.” The events were planned by parents, students and others to provide relief to teachers, Hamlett says.

The district also will incorporate Mindful Mondays into its calendar in 2022 and is training additional support staff in middle and high school to use small group counseling sessions using a method called SPARCS, or Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress. “I’m optimistic that the combination of all these things put us in a better place and put our district ahead of the curve,” Hamlett says.

Making mental health a priority

Mental health is one of the reasons that students and staff in the Detroit Public Schools Community District will be remote every Friday in December, Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti announced this week.

Administrators made the decision “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.”

Vitti cautioned that the district must meet or exceed 75% student attendance on remote days or future online learning may not be an option. Michigan can withhold funding from districts that don’t hit 180 days of instruction at 75% districtwide attendance.

All after-school activities, except for athletics, are canceled on the remote Fridays. Meanwhile, the district is now examining vaccination requirements as more students become eligible.

“Returning to in-person learning has not been easy but it has been in the best interest of students.,” Vitti said. “With the recent vaccine approval for children ages 5 to 11, the district will move forward with greater consideration of vaccine requirements for employees and students. Inevitably, this is the best way to ensure everyone’s safety and the need to create reliable learning schedules and patterns for students despite the ongoing and forever presence of COVID.”

CNN noted that many districts, like Chapel Hill-Carborro, are giving staff and students Thanksgiving week off. Another one of those districts extending fall break is Grand Island Public Schools in Nebraska.

Superintendent Tawana Grover
Superintendent Tawana Grover

Grand Island’s teachers have lost substantial amounts of planning time while covering and doubling up classes due to staff shortages exacerbated by a lack of substitutes, Superintendent Tawana Grover tells District Administration. The extra days give teachers control over managing their stress and reset and recharge for the coming months. As for administrators, she says, it’s a first step in moving away from traditional school calendars in the name of mental health.

“This is an opportunity for the education community to reimagine and rethink the benefits we offer to teachers in how we create an environment that embraces mental health,” Grover notes. “It just can’t be a comment in time. Days have to be layered with other practices that will demonstrate support for mental health throughout the entire school year.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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