During the past several months, the New Jersey School Boards Association has studied the psychological impact that living with the constant threat of the coronavirus has had on school-age children. 

In methodical, relentless fashion, the virus has been steadily killing people in the nation and in New Jersey. As of Jan. 27, the virus has killed 425,208 people in the United States, according to the New York Times, including 21,105 confirmed and probable deaths in New Jersey, according to the state database. 

Educators and mental health experts worried that so much loss — and the changes to daily life that the pandemic has brought about — would trigger a chain reaction in schools and communities, creating a wave of more serious incidents that would overwhelm the ability of school districts to provide mental health services to students and staff. 

Today, in a new report, Eye on the Future as Districts Monitor Student Mental Health, the NJSBA shows  that, for the most part, the worst has not occurred. The NJSBA conducted a survey of school districts, reviewed more than 50 published newspaper articles and studies, and interviewed two dozen board of education members, superintendents and staff. Although there are notable and concerning exceptions, the general feeling has been that plans laid during the summer to monitor student mental health and conduct regular wellness checks have been successful. 

“The report shows that the long hours that boards of education spent planning for the 2020-2021 school year, and the difficult decisions they have made in the past several months, have successfully allowed their students to continue their education and safely weather the threat of the coronavirus,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “New Jersey’s school leaders and educators continue to do an exemplary job by guiding their school districts through this historically difficult time.” 

Today’s report is the fourth in a series examining the impact of the coronavirus on education in New Jersey during the pandemic. 

Key Findings and Recommendations  The 23-page report includes 11 pages of information and strategies from districts around the state on how they are coping with the health emergency. Key findings and recommendations include: 

  • New data on the mental health of New Jersey schoolchildren. Although student suicides and incidents of self-harm remain at disturbingly high levels, the coronavirus pandemic has apparently not created a new wave of incidents. The 264 board of education members, superintendents and business administrators responding to an NJSBA survey that collected data from Nov. 16, 2020 through Jan. 8, 2021, were asked to select which statement most accurately reflected conditions in their district.
    1. 47.73% said, “We do not see evidence of more students in crisis, but in general students are more anxious and depressed.”
    2. 32.58% said, “In general, students are coping well. Our district has not seen increased evidence of serious crises.” 
    3. 12.12% said, “Our district has seen evidence of more serious crises, such as incidents of self-harm, threats of self-harm, or hospitalizations.”
    4. 7.58% selected “other.”
  • When schools reopen in fall 2021, restrictions may still be in place. National experts caution that while new vaccines offer hope, it is unclear when enough people will be vaccinated to make a return to normal possible. Schools should be prepared to start the next school year with social distancing and mask requirements still in place. 
  • More state and federal aid is needed. A COVID relief package was signed on Dec. 27 that would provide billions to public education. The bill represents a welcome first step, but the NJSBA remains convinced that more assistance will be necessary to help districts face, and effectively address, the enormous and ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic. As proposed, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package would provide badly needed funds to N.J. governments and schools. 
  • Postpone high-stakes federally required assessments. In conjunction with the major education groups in the state, the governor and the acting education commissioner should consider asking President Biden and his education secretary-designee, Dr. Miguel Cardona, to postpone national achievement tests which can be stressful for students. With a large percentage of districts either entirely, or significantly, educating students through remote learning, administering tests would also create a significant drain on resources better spent on providing mental health services for students and maintaining a high-quality education program.
  • Develop a long-term recovery plan. As the pandemic ebbs, and time and resources permit, the New Jersey Department of Education, in conjunction with the state’s major education groups, and a diverse array of district representatives from around the state, should consider developing short- and long-term plans to help students recover from any delay in learning progression caused by the disruptive events of the past year. The governor took an important first step on Jan. 11 when he signed Executive Order No. 214, suspending the state’s graduation exam requirements for the 2020-2021 school year, allowing districts to focus resources on addressing the pandemic. 

The report can be accessed here