Last updated on February 9th, 2024 at 05:32 pm

When news of a mystery, novel virus began swirling, most people — educators included — thought the COVID-19 crisis would be a blip in the radar. It was assumed that the worst-case scenario was a shutdown that might last for a couple of weeks at most. 

No one could have predicted that the global pandemic would alter daily life in schools for several years, having a lasting impact on students of all ages.

Now, more than three years after the pandemic began, the national emergency has subsided, and normalcy, for the most part, has returned. For school principals, however, it’s clear that Covid-era policies and protocols ushered in a growing mental health crisis that is manifesting in students in a variety of ways. It’s imperative that school administrators understand and recognize these challenges and work to support students as best they can. 

The Growing Mental Health Crisis in Schools

As schools began to close their doors in March 2020, the phrase heard around the world was, “Kids are resilient.” The thought was that it was better to stop the spread of the virus, particularly prioritizing those who were immune-compromised or vulnerable and that kids would bounce back without an issue. Of course, everyone thought those shutdowns would last for a couple of weeks.

In reality, it was likely school-age children who suffered the most from the Covid-era policies. Extended school shutdowns left kids navigating remote learning while their parents struggled to balance their own jobs. Children who did not have access to the same support at home, or who were not able to access high-speed Internet or devices, suffered to the greatest extent. 

After two years of remote learning, strict social-distancing protocol, and health and safety requirements, it was clear that there was a burgeoning mental health crisis in schools. According to the National Education Association, more than 75 percent of parents in the United States feel that their children could benefit from mental health services. Beyond that, more than 33 percent have said that their children have recently shown symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

The mental health crisis is manifesting in different ways in individual students. Some students are leaving class complaining of headaches, while others are struggling to behave appropriately in a classroom setting. Substance abuse among students is more prevalent now than it was prior to the pandemic, and cases of bulimia and anorexia are on the rise. 

The growing mental health crisis may seem obvious — but tackling the top issues facing students today is not an easy feat.

Five Issues Facing Students Today

In the wake of the pandemic, these are some of the most prevalent issues facing students in elementary, middle school, and high school today:

Issue One: Academic Challenges

Virtual learning was initially considered a viable — and even preferable — alternative during the height of the pandemic. However, the social isolation, coupled with the inadequate educational tools available, resulted in significant learning loss among students of all ages. By late 2022, the data revealed that students’ test scores plummeted during the pandemic, with learning loss being worse in school districts that relied on prolonged remote learning throughout the pandemic. Math scores dropped most steeply, yet reading scores also fell across most age groups. Today, principals must work with their educators in order to help them reduce the gap while still moving students forward toward where they need to be.

Issue Two: Social Isolation and Loneliness

Students in elementary, middle, and high school require social interaction in order to thrive. During these formative years, the peer group plays a pivotal role in development. In addition to being deprived of contact with their friends and classmates, children during the pandemic witnessed unthinkable horrors. According to the NEA, about 214,000 children lost a parent to the COVID-19 virus. Many more saw their parents and family members suffer from the long-term effects of the virus, while others were impacted economically by pandemic-era policies and restrictions. More children today are hungry, scared, and lonely, and this is resulting in mental health issues, behavioral problems, and physical health complications.

Issue Three: Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are running rampant among school children, many of whom are struggling to make sense of today’s complicated world. According to the CDC, 42 percent of children reported that they felt hopeless, while 22 percent seriously considered suicide. Anxiety and depression is a life-threatening mental health condition. Principals need to recognize the signs of severe anxiety and depression in their students so that they can provide them with mental health support.

Issue Four: Cyberbullying and Online Safety

Students across all ages, from early childhood through high school, were introduced to more devices, apps, and digital communication roils than ever before during the pandemic. They quickly were able to become proficient in these technologies, which has made them more reliant on devices to communicate with their friends and peers. While cyberbullying and online safety has always been a concern, these issues are much more prevalent today. In many cases, cyberbullying on social media is exacerbating any mental health issues that students are facing.

Issue Five: Limited Access to Mental Health Support

One of the most concerning issues facing students in schools today is that access to mental health support is declining at the same time that the mental health crisis is growing. Most students and families do not know where — or how — to get mental health services, and even when they do, they often cannot afford the care that they need. Families are facing years-long waiting lists to get appointments with therapists, counselors, and other mental health care professionals, and many young people need immediate attention.

How Principals Can Help

As the leader in the building, both staff and students look to the principal for guidance — particularly during tumultuous times. Principals can help the entire school community navigate these growing challenges by:

Creating a Supportive and Inclusive School Environment

The first step that any principal can and should take in their building is to recreate the culture and atmosphere within their school. It is absolutely critical that every student feels welcomed and accepted while they are at school. Principals can create a supportive and inclusive school environment by:

  • Modeling respectful and inclusive behavior.
  • Promoting diversity within the building.
  • Making it clear where students can go to get support if they feel isolated or excluded.

Providing Access to Counseling

Principals can serve as a bridge between students, teachers, and families and mental health services. The building principal can and should advocate for those in the school community by providing access to counseling, either by hiring a counselor to work in the building itself or partnering with counselors in the area to provide free or affordable mental health care services to those in the building. 

Counseling benefits students and teachers by:

  • Giving them a safe space to talk about any concerns or emotions that they are feeling at the time.
  • Providing them with a place to escape if they need to get out of a dangerous situation.
  • Allowing students and teachers to receive actionable advice that can help alleviate any symptoms of mental health disorders.
  • Offering students an opportunity to receive additional services, such as social care services. Counselors can often connect vulnerable individuals to the resources that they need to become the best version of themselves.

Building Partnerships With Parents, Teachers, and Mental Health Professionals

As the principal, you are often the one person in the building that everyone knows. In addition, you have many connections throughout the school community and the district at large. You can serve as a powerful liaison between parents, students, teachers, and mental health professionals. It’s clear that the growing mental health crisis is going to require a multi-level response, which is why all parties should be working together in order to ensure that everyone’s needs are met as we work through the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic together. As a key player in these partnerships, you will find your work as a principal to be incredibly rewarding.

Addressing Mental Health Concerns in Schools

Since COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world, students’ mental health and physical health have suffered significantly. Nearly all data indicates that academic performance has been negatively impacted, particularly among those students who endured prolonged periods of remote learning. Social isolation did more than simply harm their grades — it left many young people reeling from feelings of anxiety and depression, unsure of how to cope with their feelings or retain that sense of normalcy and security that they had so abruptly lost. Some of the best advocates for these young people are educators — the professionals who spend more time with them than anyone else. Now is the time for principals and administrators to begin to partner with parents and policymakers in order to address the rising need for mental health support in schools.

Consider Continued Education for Change

Principals can be a driving force for change in any school district, regardless of its size, demographics, and available resources. As teachers and administrators begin to look to a new school year, now may be the right time to elevate your career in education.

At Salem University, we offer a Master’s in Educational Leadership program with a principal specialization. By earning this graduate degree, you can embark on a journey as an educational leader who has compassion and empathy for what students endured during the COVID-19 pandemic. Request more information today, so that you can face the issues in education tomorrow. 

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