Schools see wave of students with emotional issues post Covid lockdowns

It will take years to fully assess the academic and behavioral damage inflicted on K-12 students who were locked out of school and away from their classmates by educators during the pandemic. Dramatically lower scores across the state on proficiency tests already point to a significant learning loss that will be challenging to make up.

At the same time, school districts report a spike in students with serious emotional and behavioral issues upon their return to the classroom. The concerns reported by the Free Press in Mankato Public Schools appear to be widespread in other districts, as well.

More Mankato Area Public Schools students reported long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems than in previous years, according to the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey, and the district is forming plans to tackle the problem.

…Travis Olson, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said the data reinforces the need to support kids with their social and emotional well-being.

“As we come out of a pandemic, we know that kids had challenges just like adults had within our system, so the steps that we take to support our kids are vital,” he said.

The percentage of Mankato students reporting emotional issues increased in every age group across the board. Their condition is considered serious if it persists for more than six months.

This year in the Mankato district, 26.3% of 520 eighth graders said they had long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems. That’s an increase from the 2019 survey when 20.9% of 502 eighth graders reported such problems.

Meanwhile, 26.6% of 459 ninth graders reported long-term mental health problems compared to 19% of 526 ninth graders in 2019.

And 33.8% of 390 11th graders reported mental health struggles compared to 24% of 405 11th graders in 2019.

The number of juniors who’ve had suicidal thoughts has also increased from 24 percent in 2019 to 28 percent of students statewide now.

Minnesota State University-based Center for Rural Behavioral Health’s director, Thad Shunkwiler, said it’s no surprise there’s been an increased number of students reporting long-term mental health challenges after the pandemic but added that mental health concerns were a problem before COVID-19 as well.

“We have to look at why are our young people feeling so overwhelmed? Why are they so isolated? That really stood out to me in reviewing the statewide data is how many young people feel isolated and alone, and how do we help them reconnect in a meaningful way with one another and within our community?” he said.

The crisis of students with serious emotional and behavioral issues has forced school districts to revamp their budgets for the next academic year to provide additional funding for more counselors and mental health professionals. But it’s far from clear how long it will take to undo the damage done by a lockdown that arguably never should have happened.