As California figures out how to transition from distance learning to safely reopening schools, we must also figure out how to provide the extra support that kids need to recover, catch up academically, and thrive. Researchers are already seeing widespread mental health needs and estimate that a majority of CA public school students will need to catch up by an extra year or more.[1] In this blog series, you will learn how the pandemic is affecting all students and the impact of learning loss on students of color, and students with special needs. You will also learn about effective solutions to reverse learning loss. The actions we take now will have a major impact on our children’s futures.

School closures and learning loss have been hard on students, especially Black and Latino students. While most students experienced social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic, some of the most vulnerable students experienced additional disruption and trauma. These disruptions ranged from job loss, loss of family members, food and housing insecurity, becoming caregivers for younger siblings, and much more.

“Many parents and children are not emotionally in a good place. They are stressed about getting sick from COVID-19. But they’re also anxious and depressed from the lock-down. One parent shared that this year has been emotionally difficult for them and their child, but they are in a safe environment. We don’t know how much more difficult and painful it has been for other kids during the pandemic– and that’s scary. Some children have suffered or witnessed domestic abuse. The trauma that’s been inflicted as a result will be walking through the classroom doors with them. Are schools ready to support these students? We live in a community and one person’s pain often affects the people around them.
Maria Elena Garcia, San Francisco Organizer

Social Isolation, a Common Stressor

Students’ social-emotional needs were already suffering

Even before COVID-19, nearly half of all children in the U.S. had experienced at least one traumatic event.[2] Students who experience trauma in their childhood are more likely to have academic, behavioral, and emotional problems.[3] Studies show that high school students with signs of depression are more than twice as likely to drop out of school compared to their peers.[4] Research also shows that students aged from 8 to 17 with mental, emotional, and behavioral concerns are three times more likely to repeat a grade.[5]

“It is next to impossible to expect teaching and learning to occur in a crisis without attending to our emotions”
Christina Cipriano, Director of Research at Yale Center for Emotional Learning

Many schools serving Black and Latino students were already not serving the social-emotional needs of children. Paying attention to a child’s social-emotional wellbeing, or the whole child, is an important aspect of supporting their academic success. Whole child learning takes place when schools consider not only academics but meeting all of a child’s needs. These needs include social-emotional, physical, mental, intellectual, and need for relationships.[6]

The pandemic has led to an increase in mental health problems

The pandemic has an impact on every aspect of children’s social lives. Students lost their schooling experience where they connect with peers and adults. They also had limited interactions with friends and family. Social isolation and loneliness have increased dramatically after school closures. Here’s a summary of data we know so far:

An Increase In Children Visits to Mental Health Emergency Rooms

  • In 2020, there was a 24% increase in 5 to 11-year-old children and a 31% increase in 12 to 17-year-old children who visited the emergency room because of mental health issues.[7]
    • Data from Children’s Hospital of Oakland shows a 66% increase in 10- to 17-year-olds having suicidal emergencies in 2020.[8]
  • In 2021, 20% of teen hospitalizations in the U.S. were because of mental emergencies – not COVID-19.[9][10]
  • 80% of parents in the U.S. were concerned about their child’s mental health and development since the pandemic began. Black and Latino parents reported even higher levels of concern.[11]
  • One in four teens reported an increase in losing sleep, feeling depressed, feeling constantly under strain, or experiencing a loss of confidence in themselves.[12]

Students Experienced Mental and Physical Health Problems

Many Black and Latino students are experiencing additional trauma

School closures have made it difficult for students to have new experiences, social connection, relationships, and new learning opportunities. The pandemic has increased stress, anxiety, and depression, especially in Black and Latino students.[13] Children from families that experience difficulty paying for food, rent, bills, and/or have lost their jobs are more likely to face mental health problems.[14]

Black and Latino Families More Likely to Face Mental Health Problems

Without proper social-emotional support this upcoming school year, children will be showing up to class emotionally suffering and tired.[15] Students cannot pay attention and learn new information if their brains are filled with anxiety. Research shows that mental health issues and trauma impact attendance, ability to complete schoolwork, the way students learn, and dropout rates.[16]

Depressed Teenage Girl Under Stairs

The pandemic of trauma

Yesenia is an eighth-grader in San Francisco. Her dad was an assistant manager at Burger King and her mom works in housekeeping at the Marriott. In March 2020, due to the pandemic lockdown, Yesenia’s dad was laid off. This caused stress on the family, who were now worried about how they were going to pay for rent and food.

As schools closed, Yesenia started taking care of her younger siblings while her mom was at work. Later that year, Yesenia’s beloved aunt passed away due to COVID-19. The stress affected her in school. She did not want to get up, eat, or even try to engage with her classmates. From all this stress, Yesenia’s parents noticed she was not able to sleep and felt more depressed.

Yesenia started to fall behind in school because she lost interest and no longer understood the new material because she was disengaged for many months. Yesenia’s parents are worried about her, and want to help her, but don’t know how or who to turn to for guidance.

Over the past year, we’ve heard hundreds of parents across California share how the pandemic and distance learning are affecting their children’s present and potentially their future. Learn more about what parents are pushing legislators to prioritize here.

During school closures, low-income Black and Latino families experienced additional trauma that worsened the social-emotional wellbeing of children. Reopening schools and recovering from learning loss must begin by supporting students’ social-emotional wellbeing. If the social-emotional wellbeing of students is not addressed, students will be unable to bring their full selves to school and thrive socially and academically.

[1] McKinsey & Company, “COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help.” December 2020.
[2] Sparks, Sarah D. “Nobody Learns It in a Day’: Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools.” Education Week, June 7, 2021.
[3] Perfect, Michelle M., Matt R. Turley, John S. Carlson, Justina Yohanna, and Marla Pfenninger Saint Gilles. “School-Related Outcomes of Traumatic Event Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms In Students: A Systematic Review of Research from 1990 to 2015.” School Mental Health. Springer US, February 12, 2016.
[4] Dupéré V, Dion E, Nault-Brière F, Archambault I, Leventhal T, and Lesage A. “Revisiting the Link between Depression Symptoms and High School Dropout: Timing of Exposure Matters.” The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, November 18, 2017.
[5]National Survey of Children’s Health.” NSCH 2018-19: Repeated a grade in school, Nationwide, Mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral problems, 2018.
[6]A Parent’s Guide to Supporting the Whole Child in Schools.” Innovate Public Schools, 2020.
[7]Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits among Children Aged 18 Years during the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 12, 2020.
[8] Jennings, Madelyn Pulver, “A Former Board Member’s Insights on the Women’s Center and Teen Mental Health.” The Women’s Center, July 16, 2021.
[9] Gandhi, Monica, and Jeanne Noble, “The Pandemic’s Toll on Teen Mental Health.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, June 10, 2021.
[10]Increasing Number of Children Requiring Emergency Mental Health Services, BCHO,” 2020. Increasing number of children requiring emergency mental health services, BCHO.
[11] Dorn, Emma, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg, “COVID-19 and Education: The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning.” McKinsey & Company, August 23, 2021.
[12]National Survey of High School Students During COVID-19 Finds Widespread Negative Impact on Learning Time, Emotional Health, Social Connection.” America’s Promise, June 12, 2020.
[13]Students Weigh In, PART II: Learning & Well-Being During COVID-19.” Youth Truth, 2020.
[14] Davalos, Monica, et al., “California’s 17 million renters face housing instability and inequity before and after COVID-19,” California Budget & Policy Center, January 2021.
*12% Black and Latino men experienced unemployment compared to 7% of their white counterparts.
[15] Rosanbalm, Katie, “Duke Research Fellow Papers Explore Issues across the Education Continuum.” The Hunt Institute, February 12, 2021.
[16] Dorn, Emma, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg, “COVID-19 and Education: The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning.” McKinsey & Company, August 23, 2021.

Innovate Public Schools is a nonprofit community organization that builds the capacity of parents and educators working together to create excellent and equitable public schools.