SF educators focus on mental health as new student behavior emerges

‘Our kids have gone through a lot and they’re still going through a lot’

As San Francisco educators prepared to welcome students back to the new normal this summer, they looked forward to a long-awaited reunion. But they also feared mental health issues could be an issue among children traumatized by the pandemic.

Many students are processing grief, community violence and being surrounded by peers they were suddenly isolated from while learning online for a year and a half. And COVID isn’t in the rear-view mirror just yet, continuing to breed anxiety among many families, staff and students fearful of coronavirus transmission as school officials work to assure safety.

Leslie Hu, school community coordinator at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in Portola, said staff has also noticed physical signs of kids adjusting to changes. Students, who got used to their own bathrooms and kitchens, didn’t realize they needed to bring a water bottle to school and have gone thirsty. The school has also seen a handful of injuries from falls and scrapes, the guess being because the youngsters are “not used to playing on a consistent basis for so long — all of a sudden they have long arms and legs,” she said.

“There’s been some signs, but we don’t know what’s happening yet,” said Hu. “Our kids have gone through a lot and they’re still going through a lot. We’re really intentional about a system approach and not piecemealing it.”

In these first weeks of the new year, San Francisco Unified School District schools are focused on building connections between students and staff while continuing wellness calls performed throughout the pandemic. Those calls helped identify families that might need more support around basic needs like food and housing and became a model for other districts, said Patrick Mulkern, an SFUSD school social worker and vice president of the California Association of School Social Workers.

Joanna Lam, a senior at Lowell High School and student delegate to the school board, appreciated that, during the first week of school, no homework assignments were given and textbooks weren’t assigned until students received lockers.

“For me personally, I feel so much better being around my peers again,” Lam said. “As for the course load and the actual school day, I see a lot of my peers struggling to adjust to the longer days and the increase in school work. I still have a hard time feeling energized through the whole day. Students are feeling stressed about commute times, COVID cases popping up at schools, and just the amount of material compared to online learning.”

Social workers including Yajaira Cuapio, at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, struggled during distance learning to support students from afar, much like older students worried about their parents who had no choice but to work while others got to stay safe at home.

Still, others had positive developments away from their peers; for example, opening up to their family about gender identity.

Now, Cuapio is seeing students feeling pressure over academics. While parent Sara Meskin’s younger daughter seems to have adjusted well, she has observed her third-grade daughter’s confidence in reading plummet after a year of uncharacteristic outbursts during the pandemic. She’s happy to be back at school but is still adjusting to the environment and schedule, Meskin said.

“Emotionally, she’s gotten a lot harder on herself,” said Meskin, a teacher herself on the Peninsula. “As a family, I think they saw us very stressed out for over a year, so we’re trying to give them more security. It’s just going to be a long process.”

Meskin tries to praise her daughter’s accomplishments and assure her that it gets easier the more she practices. One second-grader had been crying at lunch over trouble with math until Cuapio had her take some deep breaths and let her color after asking what would make her feel good.

“I always validate the students’ experience,” Cuapio said. “It’s normal to feel this way, we haven’t been in person for so long. My role is to really hold the space so they’re heard and feel safe.”

The San Francisco district has 120 school social workers, one of the highest ratios in the state, and 70 school nurses to continue supporting students, said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. Long-term, city officials in May announced that a mental health program for high school students would be expanded to SFUSD middle school students thanks to an anonymous $15 million donation.

The Department of Children, Youth and Their Families will start at four middle schools this year, eventually serving 16 schools with community-based organizations. After five years, the services should be self-sustaining by billing state health services under Medi-Cal, said DCYF Executive Director Maria Su.

“The pandemic has truly wreaked havoc on our community, particularly our young people,” Su said. “Some of them display their emotions and mental wellbeing in a very visible way. For some young people, they hold it inside. It’s just really, really, important you can catch it early and help students work through it so they can have a successful school year.”

MLK Middle also enlisted help from UCSF’s Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools program serving five other schools in The City. Through a grant, the program will train school staff to be more compassionate and better detect when kids are having a tough time rather than automatically penalizing them for offenses such as being tardy. It also institutes a culture allowing stress relief through frequent breaks to take a breath or do some stretches — for everyone.

“We need to meet the students where they’re at and the teachers also. Teachers are so stressed,” said Martha Merchant, a clinical psychologist with UCSF HEARTS. “We’re trying to change the whole school community. If it feels like a family, a kid is more likely to say, ‘Something scary happened and I think I need to talk to someone.’”

SFUSD school teachers, counselors and nurses are making a point to be in the schoolyard and cafeteria to better get to know students and observe when something is off, Mulkern said. But issues may manifest in months and years to come, making initial detection vital to set students on the right track.

“We’re kind of still in survival mode through the pandemic,” Mulkern said. “Right now, it’s all about getting to know students. The evidence shows that the sooner we catch it and support it and address it, the better off we are.”


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