State Boards Address Student Wellness during the Pandemic

By Joseph Hedger

The pandemic forced most schools into an elongated period of virtual learning that left students disconnected from school communities and readily accessible supports they might otherwise find during a normal school year. Thirty percent of young people responding to a survey by the America’s Promise Alliance conducted between late April and early May 2020 reported an increase in unhappiness or depression as schools buildings were closing. More than half said they were much more concerned than usual about basic needs, health, and academics.

In response, state boards of education have sought to focus on social and emotional supports and whole child development, especially in their plans for school reopening and recovery.

In March 2021, the Connecticut Department of Education announced the launch of the AccelerateCT Education Task Force, which includes state board members and other state leaders. The task force has outlined five areas that will inform creation of a framework for learning recovery and acceleration. Two of these aim to address students’ social and emotional needs directly: family and community connection and safety and social-emotional well-being.

In October 2020, the District of Columbia State Board of Education’s Well-Rounded Education Committee launched a webinar series on meeting the needs of the whole child. Their inaugural webinar outlined ways to create and support strong relationships with families, providing strategies for outreach, engagement, and meeting expectations.

With input from more than 300 stakeholders and collaboration with the Illinois State Board of Education and other state leaders, Illinois’s P-20 Council issued a Learning Renewal Resource Guide in March that details 12 priority areas and underlying initiatives for school districts to consider deploying for learning renewal. Citing the disproportionate toll the pandemic has had on students of color and students with higher needs, the council included wellness and emotional supports guidance and resources for students and teachers.

The state board also adopted new culturally responsive teaching and leading standards in February that require certification programs to train educators in better understanding and centering learning around their students’ diverse identities and experiences. Twenty states currently require districts provide professional development around cultural competency, according to NASBE’s State Policy Database on School Health.

In April 2021, the Maryland State Board of Education released “Transforming the Culture of Maryland’s Schools for Black Boys,” an educators’ guide that was created by a task force comprising regional and state education experts and chaired by board member Vermelle Greene. Outlining the need for social, emotional, and behavioral supports, among other focuses, the guide illustrates some evidence-based approaches including deescalation and intervention training for school staff, financial incentives to recruit and retain diverse teachers and administrators, and the creation of single-gender classes for selected subjects. Several Maryland school districts have expressed interest in piloting the guide.