Opinion | Mental wellness is key to a successful school year during COVID-19

I am a mother, executive director, and public school board member (of Birmingham Public Schools in Oakland County) and the only reason this matters, is because the last several months have been challenging for me in every aspect of these roles! 

Nicole McKinney is executive director of Friends of Children-Detroit.

The effects of COVID-19 have created both obstacles and opportunities for us all. This coupled with a fragile civil and political climate, self-care has become particularly important to keep things in perspective.

As someone who has personally experienced my own family tragedy with mental illness, (something I’ve written about and advocated for), I understand the importance of mental health, and its role in plans for the upcoming school year.

No matter what your economic status, zip code, or political affiliation, mental well-being will be key to surviving this pandemic!

So, as I prepare to discuss with my fellow school board members whether students should return to school in the fall, fully on-line or by face-to-face instruction (or somewhere in between), I plan  to do my homework and process feedback from parent surveys and committee meetings. I will also monitor the plans of neighboring districts. However, with so many factors and scenarios to consider, there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan where everyone wins, without putting students at risk (mentally or physically)!

I must state for the record, my personal preference is to have students in school five days a week, however, I don’t know how in good conscience to make that happen.

Research shows that online learning is not effective for K-8 students, and socialization with peers is important to the school experience, particularly for middle and high school-aged students. As a mother of a middle school child, it has been heart-wrenching to watch my otherwise honor roll student, disengage with online learning and grapple with the thought of not returning to sports next school year.

On the other hand, I also worry about the vulnerable children who have basic needs that aren’t being met at home, like the children in my program at Friends of the Children-Detroit who rely on schools to provide a safe haven to meet those needs, as well as the consistency they provide. 

Then there’s also the children in the middle. I’m referring to the ones whose parents have to return to work and are worried about how they will sustain their households, while also trying to support their children academically on-line if face-to-face is not possible (especially if they have special needs). All of this to consider and then we still have to factor in the teachers, an essential piece to this unique puzzle! The teachers, who themselves have children of their own that need to learn, possibly from home.

It's exhausting to think about and I know everyone is trying to make a decision that’s in the best interest of our children. I can only hope that whatever decision we make will minimize the damage it will cause.

If children truly are our future, now is our chance to teach them resilience and provide them skills to cope, so that they can thrive once this crisis is over.   

Meanwhile, in addition to math, science, language arts and all the other courses that matter, let’s add in a healthy dose of support for mental wellness as well as some leniency, if or when students fall short of conventional expectations during these unprecedented times.

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Nancy Kursman
Mon, 07/27/2020 - 2:50pm

Thanks for this thoughtful article. Mental health issues have been surging since the outbreak of Covid-19, and we need to have resources in place for students, their families, and our teachers and staff.

Captain Obvious
Mon, 07/27/2020 - 3:52pm

Given that many students don't do well with distance learning, that the basic needs of many are not met at home, that parents have to work and leave children unsupervised during the day, that isolation contributes to mental and physical health issues, and that children almost never suffer serious effects from the corona virus, why are we debating whether or not they should return to school five days per week in the Fall?

Mike Minna
Tue, 07/28/2020 - 12:56pm

Well, you said it your self..."Almost Never". No one wants to be deemed responsible for one child that is seriously ill. Beyond that, you ignore the impact on the teachers, who are not in your "Almost Never" group. Once enough teachers get sick, who will teach the kids? Furthermore, the kids do not go home to isolation. These kids would be bringing home the virus to their parents/grandparents. Therefore, it is in everyone's best interest to control the spread of covid 19 rather than allowing a segments of the population to get the virus without care of further transmission outside your "Almost Never" segment.

Mike Minna
Tue, 07/28/2020 - 8:30am

Great arrival Nicole. Another key aspect to the return to school discussion is the teachers. As a parent of Birmingham students I know how hard it's been to find substitute teachers in the past. Couple that with covid concerns and there may not be enough subs to go around. Once a few teachers in a school contract the virus, which will happen, remote learning will become the only solution. Therefore, as a parent who struggled with his kids to participate in online learning last spring, I encourage you to ensure the online learning platform and the teachers involved are prepared to execute effective online learning.