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The impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health, school attendance, + substitute teacher shortages

This weekly segment by Democrats for Education Reform CT looks at the top education stories Democrats are watching, providing bite-sized analysis and links to recent articles. This week, we’re looking at the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health, school attendance, and substitute teacher shortages.

COVID and Students’ Mental Health

The CT Mirror has been doing important coverage of students' social-emotional needs over the past week. In the wake of the pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of school-aged children who have sought psychiatric and mental health care through both emergency departments and schools. At the national level, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have called the decline in children’s mental health a national emergency. The CT State Department of Education (CSDE) intends to use some of its federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to expand emotional support—a priority that is likewise in many districts' plans. The CSDE is launching the "Devereux Student Strengths Assessment" (DESSA) system, through which teachers will assess students' social-emotional well-being so that schools can intervene. Going into the 2022 legislative session, the issue is also top-of-mind for many legislators. The co-chairs of the Children's Committee hosted a mental health panel last month, and House Speaker Matthew Ritter has said that mental health services are likely to be a major focus next year. Senator Saud Anwar has said he wants to pursue a comprehensive strategy, not Band-Aids.

COVID and Chronic Absenteeism

In the 2020-21 school year, 19% of students were considered chronically absent statewide—a label that means a student has missed at least 10% of the school days in a year. In Bridgeport, 28.9% of students were chronically absent, compared to 34.3% in New Haven, 43.5% in New London, and 44.4% in Hartford. In June, the CSDE and Attendance Works released data showing that chronic absenteeism is highest among students who came from low-income communities, were English Learners, had disabilities, or were Black or Hispanic.

COVID and Substitute Teacher Shortages

On Monday, a couple of stories looked at teacher and staffing shortages in schools. The CT Examiner's coverage explored the increasing number of students in special education, pitted against the staffing shortages. Many districts lack the personnel to meet students' needs in-district. When there aren't enough adults in the classroom, students can't always get the one-to-one support they need. The Hartford Courant's story on the topic of shortages documented several approaches individual districts were taking to secure substitute teachers, like raising salaries or recruiting college students. Their coverage, however, places blame on “students’ bad behavior,” which both shows bias and discounts the trauma and challenges to kids resulting from being kept out of normal school activities and services for eighteen months.

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