Among the unprecedented challenges that New Jersey school districts have been coping with since last March when the coronavirus pandemic closed the state’s schools is the challenge of serving their students’ heightened social and emotional needs.

Late last spring, America’s Promise Alliance released the results of a nationally representative survey of high school students, administered when most had been out of school for more than four weeks due to COVID-19. The survey suggested that many students were feeling unhappy or depressed, worried about having their basic needs met and disconnected from school, adults and classmates. About 30% were more concerned than usual about having their basic needs met; while more than 25% of young people reported losing sleep, feeling unhappy or depressed, feeling under strain or experiencing a loss of confidence in themselves.

What can schools do to help students cope? To explore this issue, School Leader spoke with Dr. Matthew Murphy, who has been superintendent of the Ramsey Public Schools since 2012. Murphy has long been an advocate for mental health services and social-emotional learning for students. He is on the board of West Bergen Mental Healthcare, a non-profit, and chairs a committee which works to de-stigmatize the usage of mental health services.

Dr. Matthew Murphy, superintendent of the Ramsey Public Schools
Dr. Matthew Murphy, superintendent of the Ramsey Public Schools

Murphy, who began his career teaching in Wyckoff, served as a principal in Westwood Regional and was superintendent of River Vale Public Schools prior to appointment to his post in Ramsey.

Currently the Bergen County district is operating on a hybrid basis, with students split into an “A” group and a “B” group. Students come on alternating days, attend in-school classes for four hours, then go home for lunch, and attend their afternoon classes virtually. On off days, the group is home all day attending remote school. In addition, about 14% of the district students have opted for all-virtual learning.

Below is NJSBA’s discussion with Matt Murphy, edited for length and clarity.

Do you have a sense whether students are dealing with increased anxiety and social or emotional difficulties?

While I have not done a formal survey, my “Spidey Sense,” tells me we are dealing with an increase in anxiety, depression and simply more negative emotions.

One measure of this is that in June, I co-hosted a web-based video conference that focused on mental health, along with the Bergen County office of education. We teamed up with West Bergen Mental Healthcare, a non-profit that is one of the largest providers of mental health services in Bergen County. Full disclosure: I am on the board of West Bergen, and have been for six or seven years, so I have a great network.

I had more than 400 teachers participate in the conference. We never would have been able to service that many people in a traditional venue, but because we had breakout rooms, and I anticipated a large turnout, we could do it. All teachers in Bergen County were invited. There were sessions on teacher stress, student stress, a focus on different grade levels—there was a wide variety of topics. I have had calls to do that again, so I will probably do another conference in the fall.

So without a survey, I know our staff and our students are having trouble with this.

What do you think are the contributing factors during this pandemic that are causing students to feel extra stress?

I think the social isolation is a primary factor. Human beings are by nature social creatures and while content is important in school, we know it is just one part of what school has to offer. For kids, it is building those relationships and being able to be with your peers that is important, too.

Since March, to varying degrees, they have been isolated—not just physically but also emotionally. Once a month, I co-host a little one hour show on a YouTube channel called “Let’s Talk Mental Health.” My co-host is Michael Tozzoli, the chief executive officer of West Bergen Mental Healthcare and one of the things we try to encourage is the idea that even though you are physically isolated, you do not have to be socially and emotionally isolated.

This was a hard message to get across in March, April, May and June, when we were all living inside this bubble. We tried to encourage people with Zoom, and with six-feet apart distancing, that even though we were socially distancing, we weren’t socially isolating.

That was our message, but it was hard with everything that was going on. At that time Bergen County also had one of the highest rates of COVID in the country.

Also there was a sense of loss. Not just loss in terms of people losing family members, although that did happen, but there was the loss of the rituals—the end of the year clap outs, the graduations, the prom, the kids’ birthday parties. Young people have a hard time understanding.

So there was a real sense of loss we had to deal with. We encourage people, to the best of their ability, to continue the rituals, even though they look and feel different. They are important.

What are some of the things that your district has done to address the mental health and social-emotional aspects of the pandemic?

We started a “warm line” for staff and for our parents. It is two different telephone lines—one for staff and one for parents, and people can call to talk to a counselor and they get a call back within 30 minutes. We call it a “warm line” not a “hot line,” because it’s not immediate.

Every week those warm lines are used by parents and staff. I don’t know what the specific problems or concerns are, because we maintain confidentiality, but as I always say, even if it’s a little issue, it is better to talk to someone and nip it in the bud before it becomes a bigger issue.

Sometimes just talking to a stranger on the phone helps out. Counselors from West Bergen return the calls—so there is no way I would know which Ramsey staff members called.

We are still breaking down the stigma that surrounds getting mental health help. Anyone will say, “I am getting chemo,” or “I am getting a CAT scan,” but people aren’t comfortable saying I’m going to talk to a counselor.

The other thing we have done since March is we have added two therapists, who are available 24-7 to those who need them. This is a step up in terms of the services offered from the “warm line.” They are on a contract basis with the district.

This fall, all of our seventh-graders, eighth-graders and 10th graders will be screened for depression; we are using a questionnaire developed at Columbia University. The other new thing this year is that all ninth-grade students will be trained in “mental health first aid,” just like all of our 10th grade students get CPR-certified.

These are two big changes I am really excited about. We have developed a mental health first aid training program that is geared towards students. The idea is that they can recognize if a friend is having trouble, and it builds awareness of what you should do if someone is having signs of a mental health crisis.

These programs won’t end when the pandemic does; these are here to stay.

Why is social-emotional learning important, even in normal times?

For years we have always understood things about learning. If you are hungry you aren’t able to focus on the things that are important. If we don’t take care of those hierarchical needs, it is going to be very hard to learn. Social stresses and uncontrolled emotions are a barrier to learning.

This is true of social-emotional learning. Most young people can get by, and they learn to cope. But by identifying and putting a focus on social-emotional learning, I think we are going to help those students who are at a real disadvantage and those students in the middle who are not able to identify that it was the social and emotional end that was impacting their ability to learn.

Your district already was a leader in social-emotional learning. What had you been doing already?

We adopted the RULER program out of Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence. Marc Brackett, who developed the program, wrote a book “Permission to Feel” and we used that book for our “one book one community” program and Marc came to speak in the district.

The program is research-based and connects emotional intelligence to effective teaching and learning. The RULER acronym refers to recognizing emotions; the R standing for recognizing, the U for understanding the causes and consequences; L is for labeling the emotions; E is for recognizing them and the last R is for regulating emotions. The program involves the whole school community.

I also chair the Ramsey Stigma-Free Committee, which raises awareness about mental health resources. We do several events, like a walkathon and a talkathon, and the community has embraced it.

How has your board of education assisted in these efforts?

I couldn’t do any of this without the support of the board. Laura Behrmann is our board president and she and all the members have been so supportive.

There aren’t a lot of boards that would be ok with depression screening and mental health first aid without knowing that a lot of districts are doing this, but this board is.

I do a lot of events with the Stigma-Free team and they are very supportive of that. Their faith in me and in this really means a lot. They recognize that our community really needs all of us to work on this issue.

What should parents be doing to help their children?

I can’t stress enough the value of reaching out to a professional if you think your child is having difficulty. I think a lot of people think that their child has to be in a major situation before they recognize they need help. But there are many resources. It doesn’t have to be a major depression or traumatic event. Sometimes it helps just to talk to pick up the phone and talk to a trained professional. It could just be one phones. I always say let’s nip a problem when it is little, before it’s big—sometimes people wait too long.

A lot of that has to do with not knowing all the resources that are available and parents think it is tied to their health insurance.

One of the problems in mental health is that insurance companies make it difficult to have ongoing therapy.

But with smaller problems, there are lot of resources. We have guidance counselors, we have trained therapists available, we have the “warm line,” and you don’t need insurance at all to use any of those resources in our district. That is very different than “my child needs intense psychotherapy.” Schools can help but we can’t if we don’t know there is an issue.

If people have questions about any of our programs, they should feel free to reach out to me at the Ramsey school district.

Janet Bamford is manager of communications and publications at NJSBA.