Odyssey ESL Program 07

A student who is learning English at Odyssey Elementary School in Ogden indicates his agreement with another student by holding his thumb up on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

OGDEN — Throughout the last year, COVID-19 has accumulated an enormous death toll. Another sobering side effect of the global pandemic has been its impact on the mental health of young people.

According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November 2020, mental health-related emergency room visits for children ages 5-11 increased by 24% between April and October 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. For children between the ages of 12 and 17, visits went up by 31%.

As schools closed in March 2020 to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the Ogden School District began considering how it could modify its approach to social-emotional learning to help students adjust to what the district's director of student advocacy, Aspen Florence, called a "slightly traumatic" series of events.

"There was a different schedule, some parents were losing jobs and families were stressed," she said.

Before COVID-19 reached the U.S., or even existed, the Ogden School District was already developing its focus on social-emotional learning. It is one anchor in the district's three-pronged strategic plan.

To gauge how social-emotional learning is going, the district began administering surveys to students and teachers three years ago. In its buildout of the surveys, the Ogden School District works with Panorama Education, an organization that helps educators collect data and use it to improve student outcomes in multiple areas, including social-emotional learning.

Traditionally, the surveys are given three times a year and include questions about students' sense of belonging, school safety, grit, emotional regulation, social perspective taking and self-efficacy, Florence said.

Students in the Ogden School District were, without a doubt, emotionally impacted by some of the measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Among students in grades three through five, 61% indicated they felt a sense of belonging — a 4% drop from 2019. The sense of belonging felt by students in grades six through 12 held steady, with 38% reporting they feel like they belong.

“We have work to do there," said Superintendent Rich Nye in reaction to the numbers at a Jan. 7 school board meeting. "We identified and we evaluated our strategies, we’re making some adjustments to make sure our kids feel like they want to be in school.”

At that school board meeting, Nye said the district has an annual goal to increase the sense of belonging by 2% — a benchmark he said is statistically significant, adding that a double-digit jump is almost unheard of according to Panorama Education.

One of the adjustments the district made starting in spring 2020, according to Florence, was in the questions included in the survey. The district began asking students about their well-being.

"The well-being data added things like, in the past week have you felt anxious, happy, safe, cared for," Florence said. "We were focused on the situation they were currently engaged in rather than just a school-based situation."

In a typical year, the Ogden School District will work to identify children who may be struggling at home and connect them to resources like school-based therapists. The added well-being data indicated that more students were struggling than the district anticipated, Florence said.

But as the district became aware of more students who were dealing with mental health challenges, it was also trying to figure out how to best connect with and help the students who needed it while all instruction was virtual and students were stuck at home to avoid contracting the coronavirus. 

"We could no longer rely on those face-to-face interactions, so we recreated our whole system as far as how we were going to check in with students," Florence said.

Employees teamed up to check in on students more often, and teachers were trained on how to build socially distanced relationships with students. For some students, that meant getting a call once a month, while others heard personally from their teachers once a week, and sometimes teachers would check in with parents regularly to ask how the whole family was doing.

Those check-ins continued through the summer and, Florence said, resulted in improved attendance once schools reopened for the students who were regularly contacted. 

Of those who received summer interventions, 59% have so far increased their attendance this academic year. Comparatively, out of a group of students who had similar data indicating risk but for some reason did non receive interventions, only 29% have increased attendance. The students who were checked in on also indicated in surveys that they felt a greater sense of belonging than they had in the past, Florence said.

Overall, the proportion of regular attenders in the Ogden School District has risen from 40% to 50%, meaning they have 95% attendance or higher, according to data included in its strategic plan. It also began the school year ranking in the 80th percentile nationally for students' perception of school safety — another achievement Florence attributed to the district's focus on social-emotional learning.

The changes made by the district at the beginning of the pandemic will likely stay in place after it eventually subsides, Florence said. It will continue to gauge students' well-being in social-emotional learning surveys and train educators to check in on how students are faring both inside and outside the classroom.

"I think what the pandemic highlighted is that it's not just something that some kids need, but all kids need," Florence said. "Even kids that are achieving academically and come from strong households, they still need that support."

The pandemic also made Florence realize just how important relationships between the schools and families are, she said. Families and educators need to work together to make sure children's emotional state remains OK. 

"That really is the most beautiful thing that came out of this was the trust between the district and families was stronger, because it had to be," Florence said.

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

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