Opinion: Framing the Crisis #1 — Schools and School Districts Should Prioritize Addressing Mental Health during COVID-19

This is the first in a series of opinion pieces written by Cowen Institute staff and educators in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

By Arpi Karapetyan, Senior Research Fellow at the Cowen Institute

Efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders by governors and mayors across the country. Schools have moved to remote learning, bars have temporarily shut down, restaurants only fulfill to-go orders, and tens of millions of people have lost their jobs. As a result, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented economic disaster. Nationally, almost 22 million unemployment claims were filed in four weeks.

According to a report by the Brookings Institute, the New Orleans metropolitan area will be one of the hardest hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19 because a large number of jobs in Orleans Parish are in the foodservice and hospitality industries. From March 21st to April 9th, over 220,000 people have filed for unemployment in Louisiana, including more than 100,000 people in one week. These unemployment numbers are only matched by record-breaking numbers that occurred during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when residents were forced to leave the city and over 350,000 claims were filed in Louisiana over 14-weeks.

COVID-19, like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is impacting marginalized members of our society at disproportionately high rates. As a result of systemic racial disparities, Black residents are more likely to live in areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, areas without clean drinking water, and areas with higher levels of pollution. Subsequently, they are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that increase COVID-19 mortality rates. According to data released by the Louisiana Department of Health, Black residents make-up roughly 32% of the population in Louisiana but account for over 70% of the more than 1,000 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the state. The Louisiana data is consistent with data released by other states across the country. In addition, national data suggest COVID-19 is spreading more quickly in low-income communities than in wealthier communities.

Over 75% of K-12 students enrolled in New Orleans public schools are Black. Over 80% are from low-income households. New Orleans students have and will lose loved ones in this crisis; they will worry about their parents, family, and friends getting sick; and their family members will lose their jobs. Some students will have difficulty accessing food or will be forced to spend time in a home with abusive family members. Even for students with more fortunate circumstances, the stress of this moment will inevitably weigh on them.

Schools and school communities will play a pivotal role in how young people respond to and are impacted by this crisis. Educators are rightfully concerned that the loss of learning resulting from COVID-19 will perpetuate existing educational inequities. School districts across the country have made efforts to address the loss of learning from COVID-19 by ensuring students continue to receive instruction online. However, according to a recent New York Times report, in some low-income school districts, fewer than half of all students are logging in to take part in online classes. The Times cites inadequate access to technology as one potential reason for the low-rates of participation among low-income youth. Like other districts, NOLA-Public Schools is actively attempting to address technology gaps. Over the past month, they have distributed 10,000 Chromebooks and 8,000 wi-fi hotspots to students who need them.

In addition to these important efforts to provide students with equitable access to technology, adequately addressing academic inequities pre-dating and exacerbated by COVID-19 will require schools and districts in cities like New Orleans to look beyond access to instruction. Research indicates that traumatic events, like the loss or serious illness of a loved one, can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in young people and repeated stressful life events can increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder. In addition, researchers found that the stress caused by poverty can impede cognitive functioning. For example, one group of researchers found that low-income participants performed more poorly than wealthy participants on a cognitive task commonly found on IQ tests after being asked to think about their finances. Similarly, the researchers found farmers performed better on cognitive tasks after the harvest — when they were more financially stable — than they did before the harvest.

Instances of poverty and mental illness will almost certainly increase among New Orleans K-12 students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools, districts, and policymakers have a responsibility to acknowledge that reality and work to support the mental health of students during and after this crisis. Failure to do so might further academic inequities and have long-term consequences for the mental health of students.

There are several ways New Orleans schools and educators currently support the mental health of their students, including having mental health counselors, social workers, and other school officials reach out to students to provide wrap-around services. They are also working to provide a sense of community remotely for students. These efforts are important and should be expanded.

In addition, several other approaches should be considered. First, even with the possibility of future budget cuts due to lost tax revenue from the crisis, policymakers should increase school funding for mental health counselors. This is a precarious time financially for school districts and states. It is likely school budgets will be cut. Mental health support for students should be considered a priority. Failing to increase this support could have severe consequences like a further increase in suicide rates.

Next, schools can implement programs that promote social-emotional learning (SEL). There is research to suggest that both school-level and targeted SEL interventions can support the mental health of students and a number of schools in New Orleans already have SEL programs.

Third, schools should consider creating a mental health hotline for young people who cannot access support because of broadband limitations or who prefer to access support through a hotline.

Finally, educators and administrators should respond to students with empathy. As the Times article highlights, students are scared they might fail for not completing required tasks on time, even when the reasons why they cannot complete these tasks are outside of their control. Schools should accept that some students will be unable to be productive. This should not be held against them. Instead, they should be received with love, compassion, and understanding during this unprecedented time.

Arpi is a Senior Research Fellow with the Cowen Institute at Tulane University and a data fellow with Harvard University’s Strategic Data Project. Before coming to the Cowen Institute, Arpi was a Senior Data Analyst at Boston Day and Evening Academy, an alternative high school in Boston Public Schools. Her work consisted of developing a data system for the school and conducting analyses that informed the school’s practice. Before working at Boston Day and Evening Academy, Arpi worked at the Paraclete Academy as a teacher and at Harvard University as a research assistant. She is passionate about helping reform schools to better meet the needs of marginalized students. Arpi earned an Ed.M from Harvard University and a B.A. in psychology from Grinnell College. She is a Posse scholar.

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The mission of the Cowen Institute is to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond.

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