After a summer of planning and adaption to coronavirus guidelines, Tomball and Magnolia ISDs welcomed students to campus Sept. 8 as in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year kicked off.

With about 61% and 82% of students in TISD and MISD, respectively, choosing face-to-face instruction for the first grading period and the remainder opting for a virtual method, students, families and teachers are now navigating a new learning environment both in person and online.

While in-person education remains the ideal model of learning for some students, according to certain parents, educators and experts, health and safety concerns related to COVID-19 are causing many students to continue learning virtually or carry additional emotional baggage this year. Schools and community members said they are working to ensure adequate resources are available for students’ mental and social well-being.

“When you come back to school—for teachers and students—your backpack needs to be full with more than just supplies,” said Michael Webb, TISD assistant superintendent of student support, referring to the Emotional Backpack training the district is rolling out for the second year. “You have to have the supplies for healing and the supplies for mental health intervention.”

Pandemic pressures

Protecting community health and limiting the spread of COVID-19 have been focuses of public health since the spring, according to district, government and health officials. Entities from schools to organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also emphasized returning to school as an important step to preserve children’s educational, physical and emotional progress.

“Whenever you’re face to face, it’s much easier to gauge how kids are grasping content,” said Ben Petty, MISD’s executive director of special services. “When you look at the mental health, the social [and] emotional part of education, that too becomes a concern because there’s a lot of kids that need some additional help ... to talk through issues that they’re facing.”

While schools shifted to distance-learning models this spring—and into the 2020-21 school year as MISD began virtually only in mid-August—educators and family members also noted downsides to the new models.

“Both [learning] options are likely to result in slower progression through the curriculum this year, as it is anticipated that the mechanics of doing the teaching are going to be highly interrupted with items such as attendance, attention span, mask issues ... [and] discipline control,” TISD parent Stephen Airey said in an email.

Dr. Molly Lopez, the director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas, said while working to provide a safe and productive learning environment for students and educators, administrators may also have to take on new approaches to mental health in the upcoming year.

“This can be an opportunity ... for important learning that—not just students—but all of us can do,” Lopez said. “Difficult times like this are challenges that are an opportunity for us to learn skills in coping and ... builds our resiliency.”

School support

According to Nefertari Mundy, TISD’s assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives, the district has doubled down on staff training for social and emotional learning for the school year. Staff received two 45-minute sessions at the year’s start and will have weekly trainings throughout the year, which are a new addition from previous years.

“Those trainings have really focused on mindfulness, self-care, really reiterating our social-emotional learning practices, self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, social awareness,” Mundy said. “It’s super important for teachers to be aware that their kiddos could have experienced any number of situations. ... We’ve got to be able to attend to that [trauma] for staff and students before they can really get to the academics, and that’s why we started with that training, along with everything else.”

In addition to staff trainings, districts are also implementing social and emotional learning programs into students’ curriculum. According to Petty, MISD students in kindergarten to fourth grade will participate in Second Step, a program developed by nonprofit Committee for Children designed to help students identify, discuss and manage their emotions and anxieties.

Students in fifth to 12th grades will participate in the Character Strong program, which focuses on relationship-building, character development, and social and emotional skills, among others.

Resources for parents will also be made available online to support parents navigating social and emotional learning with their students, according to Petty.

Educators at TISD’s elementary and intermediate schools also use Great Expectations, a learning framework that is key to the school atmosphere, Mundy said. Each day begins with a “call to excellence” for students; the district transitioned this to a weekly virtual video for the TISD community when school facilities were closed in the spring, she said.

“Because we weren’t able to do that face to face, ... every single week we launched a virtual rise and shine, or call to excellence, so that our students—even though they weren’t in the building—could still see their counselors every single week via video,” Mundy said. “This time away from the building really allowed staff to become comfortable delivering services in a virtual world, so for those kids who will be attending [Tomball Virtual School], they’ve got skilled counselors who are already great in terms of being practitioners. But now we’ve gotten even better delivering services online.”

Community response

Local counseling centers and experts said they expect to see an increase in demand for mental health services from school-age youth in the 2020-21 school year as students, educators and families learn to navigate a new world of covered faces and virtual classrooms throughout the pandemic.

“[In] March, everybody [said], ‘Oh, it’ll go away,’ and then April hit, and it hadn’t gone away, and we started seeing an upsurge of anxiety adjustment, depression, suicidal ideation and things of that nature,” said Kim Huff-Howard, a licensed professional counselor and the owner of Tomball-area Counseling Creations. “I’ve had clients that were off and learning on their own doing great that are suddenly coming back, and it’s because of this new cherry on top of everything they’re trying to handle.”

Further, Adriana Gutierrez, the director of counseling services for Yes to Youth—a Montgomery County youth service provider and nonprofit with a location in Magnolia—said in August the organization has assisted students this year though its telehealth counseling options and new focused skill and support groups, as well as a 24-hour crisis hotline. In addition, Gutierrez said families can support children’s mental health at home through simple patterns in everyday life.

“The biggest thing that students and families can do is create a healthy routine. Just as if they were in school, set a wake-up time, breakfast time, and a time to start and end their day,” she said. “In addition, take breaks throughout the day, step outside and soak up some sun, drink water, and disconnect from the computer for a few minutes between sessions. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Webb said TISD will be offering three youth mental health first-aid training sessions for parents and community members this fall to better understand the signs of students in a mental health crisis and how to connect them with resources. The trainings will be held virtually Nov. 6, Nov. 20 and Dec. 8.

Regardless of whether students have returned to campus or are remaining virtual learners this year, Sherry Burkhard, the executive director of the mental health resource hub Mosaics of Mercy located in Magnolia, emphasized educators and families should maintain a watchful eye on students and their mental health during the school year.

“It’s really important for educators and parents to be taking care of their own mental health so we’re showing kids how to do that as well right now,” Burkhard said. “It’s really important for everyone ... to be on the lookout for kids that are struggling. ... It really requires everyone that’s coming in contact with that kid [to be attentive] because we all may be a little more distracted than usual.”

Anna Lotz contributed to this report.