An air purifier in a middle school classroom in Bridgeport. Courtesy Hilary McDevitt

With mask mandates lifting in schools across the state, it’s tempting to let out the collective breath we’ve been holding since the pandemic forced schools to close two years ago. It feels like a tangible sign that we can begin to put all this disruption behind us.

But talk to any educator working in the classroom, and they’ll tell you that the social and emotional impact of the pandemic has pushed the school system past a tipping point in its efforts to meet the needs of our students. 

Well before the pandemic, educators had started paying more attention to the crucial roles that mental health and social emotional learning play in a successful educational experience. It was already becoming clear that mental health resources were lacking in many schools. That the pandemic has exacerbated the trend toward mental health crisis for young people is now widely acknowledged. 

As a ninth grade English teacher, I see many students moving through their days in survival mode. For some, their families have gone through a level of economic stress that is difficult for many of us to imagine. Many spent a year or more of crucial development time socially isolated with very little peer interaction or reliant on social media for connection. 

Educators everywhere are doing their best to address these needs alongside students’ academic goals and their own workloads, but the increased burden of these demands has left many in survival mode. Staffing shortages in all positions in the system only compound the problem, which raises concern of a ripple effect as teachers are considering leaving the profession at an alarming rate.

The mental health bills currently moving through the state legislature seek to respond to this dramatic increase in need for services for young people. Much attention has rightly been paid to the rapid rise in hospital admissions. While resources are clearly needed for these acute cases in the healthcare system, we cannot overlook the crucial role that school staff can play in identifying concerning mental health behaviors and supporting students before they find themselves in need of more intensive support. 

The sad reality is that with current resources, schools are struggling to be the safe and supportive places that many of our students need. Identifying these needs early requires human resources in the right place. If we hope to give students the opportunity to achieve their potential, schools need to have the resources to hire more support staff.

School-based social workers with reasonable caseloads and ample time to provide group and individual services are able to provide the individualized attention necessary to identify concerns and meet students’ needs. Schools with additional support staff have the greatest chance of improving outcomes for students and fostering a nurturing culture in the school as a whole.

In addition to providing direct services in response to student needs, these additional staff members will also be able to use their expertise in collaboration with other educators to examine the values and priorities of our system and make changes to help everyone be ready to work and learn at their best. 

We have reached a critical moment in this crisis. We are either going to let our longing for the familiarity of the pre-pandemic status quo pull us backward to what we could already tell wasn’t working, or we are going to act boldly to give our schools the staff and resources needed to radically improve our ability to meet our students’ needs. 

As we head into the final quarter of this school year, we must realize that our schools were lacking in mental health support before the pandemic, and many of the underlying causes of these issues have only been exacerbated in the past two years. Our previous practices will prove to be woefully inadequate moving forward. If we don’t want schools to widen already existing inequities for generations to come, education and social policy must adapt and respond to the unique challenges of our time swiftly and with enough resources to meet the challenge. 

The question is whether we’ll be bold enough to make the investments in the systemic changes that our students (and our educators, for that matter) so desperately need to be successful. Passing the proposed mental health bills in the Connecticut legislature would strengthen access to mental health resources across the state.

Most importantly, it would provide school districts the resources they need to successfully navigate this mental health crisis.

Steven Tatum is a high school English teacher in Hartford