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D.C. Voices: Mental health supports during school closures

May 04, 2020
  • Chelsea Coffin
  • Tanaz Meghjani

After declaring a public health emergency for the District of Columbia on March 11th, 2020, Mayor Bowser closed non-essential businesses and issued a stay at home order, requiring residents to socially distance from those outside their households. Schools closed two days later. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new health concerns for many, and efforts to slow its spread may increase stress levels even more. The need for mental health services is increasing for a subset of students and their families at a time when schools, usually a key provider of some mental health supports, are closed.

Some households are concerned about meeting basic needs related to health and economic wellbeing, which can take a toll on mental health. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey of Americans, approximately one in five respondents said the current crisis has had a “major impact” on their mental health and about half were worried that they or a family member would contract the coronavirus. Many adults are worried about the potential of job loss or bankruptcy in addition to health concerns of illness and death, and their fears may translate to higher rates of depression and anxiety. In a recent survey of nonelderly adults, four in ten reported that their families have lost jobs, work hours, or work-related income because of the pandemic.

The emotional burden related to economic hardship may weigh even more heavily on children of parents and caregivers who are working in jobs that are the most affected by widespread closures. For example, a national study to follow families where at least one parent worked in the service industry found that layoffs had occurred in almost six in ten households by April. These job losses were accompanied by feelings of stress and depression in both parents and children: Over the course of a month, there was a four percent increase in the number of parents who reported feeling anxious or depressed all day and a six percent increase in the number of children who began chronically misbehaving at home.[1]

Children face additional risks to their emotional wellbeing while schools are closed during this health and economic crisis. A review of the psychological impact of isolation during other public health emergencies found that the mean post-traumatic stress scores were four times higher in children who had been quarantined than in those who were not quarantined.[2]

Understanding the risks children may face during this time is critical. Some research suggests that youths who have been exposed to multiple traumas, have a history of anxiety issues, or have experienced family adversity face a much higher risk of prolonged posttraumatic stress. These youth are also less likely to be diagnosed and receive help, especially if they are from communities of color.[3]

Before this outbreak, 21.3 percent of children up to age 17 in D.C. had been exposed to an adverse childhood experience (ACE). But in recent weeks, family stress related to economic hardship and health concerns has increased significantly: between March 13th and April 28th, 81,942 new unemployment claims were filed and as of April 28th, 205 D.C. residents have passed away due to COVID-19 and over 4,000 residents have contracted the virus.

D.C.’s schools offer many resources to support students’ mental health and to learn more about how school closures are impacting the availability and efficacy of those resources, the D.C. Policy Center spoke with three stakeholders representing a school, a school partner working to support the whole child model, and a children’s advocacy organization to ask the following question: How can mental health supports make a difference for students while schools are closed?

Raymond Weeden, Executive Director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS

We want to do everything we can to make sure all members of our community receive the support they need.  

Ensuring access to mental health care for our high school students is one of our biggest priorities while Thurgood Marshall Academy is closed. When we learned we were going to have to close the school, we took very intentional steps to reassure students who receive counseling that we would take care of them. Our wellness team met individually with each student on their caseload and talked to them about changing circumstances and plans for support.

Once we transitioned to distance schooling, we assigned our most high-risk students to members of the wellness team and divided our remaining students among the rest of the staff. Every week, each staff member is responsible for calling the students and families on their list—I have a group of six students that I’m going to check in on today, for example. It’s our way of making sure each student is talking to someone they’re familiar with and comfortable with. We also use these calls to make sure our students are in safe spaces, have the basic resources they need, and are doing well physically and mentally. If we notice any red flags on these calls, we alert the wellness team immediately, so they can ensure the student receives the expert-level attention he or she needs from one of the mental health care providers we partner with in the District.

Our Wellness Team, deans, clinicians and partners meet weekly to review caseloads, provide updates on any students or families of concern, and problem-solve. Additionally, we have discussed other ways we can connect with students through social media like Instagram. May is mental health awareness month and the newsletters sent out to families and students included wellness tips.

We’re also taking similar steps to ensure our staff members are doing well. We’ve asked all managers to reach out to a team member regularly to check-in and make sure they’re doing okay. We have larger all-school meetings where we talk as a team, but I don’t believe they are a substitute for one-on-one interactions, so we’re trying to encourage more of the latter. We want to do everything we can to make sure all members of our community receive the support they need.

Katie Bowen, Partner at Transcend 

In talking with our D.C. school and community partners, we know that it is not an understatement to say that we are experiencing a collective trauma with disparate impact across racial and socio-economic lines.

At Transcend, we believe students’ mental health and wellbeing should be the number one focus for schools and educators during this crisis and when schools reopen. In D.C., over the past four years, our work has focused on creating learning environments where student wellness and socio-emotional health is at the center of the school design. Never has this work felt more urgent. In talking with our D.C. school and community partners, we know that it is not an understatement to say that we are experiencing a collective trauma with disparate impact across racial and socio-economic lines. These adverse experiences are diverse and complex, for example: children and adults trapped in abusive homes with nowhere to go, families whose breadwinners can no longer provide for basic needs, heightened fear of racialized policing, deepening and widening food insecurity, increased risk for people with compromised immune systems, not to mention actual illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Through our partnership with Van Ness Elementary school in Ward 6, we have built, tested and begun to spread a whole-child, whole school model (known as the Whole Child Model) where student well-being is at the center of the school design. At Van Ness and the 5 DCPS schools participating in the Whole Child Collaborative (WCC), the model ensures all students feel safe, connected, and have strong relationships in the school building and, now, on-line. While schools are closed, Van Ness and the WCC have adapted their wellness practices for virtual learning. These practices include:

  • Regular communication with students, families, and staff through video chats 1-2 times per week between teachers and students as well as accessible weekly newsletters for both families and staff.
  • Personalized websites for each classroom created by classroom teachers to increase connection while separated. The websites allow students to start their day with “Strong Start”, a set of practices that help relieve stress, build connection and get students’ brains in their executive state, ready to learn.  These websites also include suggested schedules to help maintain routine, a wealth of wellness practices including methods for breathing to relieve stress, instructions on how to build a safe space at home where students can go to regulate their emotions as well as resources for parents to help them support their child in identifying feelings and talking to their children about the pandemic.
  • Providing on-line mental health support and counseling for students.
  • Support for families to meet their basic needs. This support includes providing grocery gift cards to parents, information to help families access social services, and access food distribution organizations near them. These efforts are often funded through Go-Fund-Me campaigns.

By focusing on students’ wellness and mental health, we believe that each school community has a greater chance of weathering and recovering from this crisis while students continue to grow and ultimately thrive.

Judith Sandalow, Executive Director of the Children’s Law Center

Unaddressed, the pandemic-induced trauma will prevent children from learning, lead to self-destructive behavior and have a long-term impact on children’s opportunities.

Every child, like every adult, is feeling some combination of grief, loss and anxiety because of the pandemic. Fear of COVID-19. New routines – or no routines. Missing friends and teachers. Absorbing their parents’ stress.

Many children have additional stressors: hunger, long hours in small, crowded apartments, domestic violence, child abuse, parents who risk infection on frontline jobs.

Without the words or space to voice their concerns, children will often “act out” instead.

Which is why Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn was right when he said, “In the short term, we need to recover, including ensuring our students have all the social and emotional supports they need for a successful return to school.” Unaddressed, the pandemic-induced trauma will prevent children from learning, lead to self-destructive behavior and have a long-term impact on children’s opportunities.

Mental health support is even harder to provide right now. And for children to be healthy, they and their parents need access to it. School-based mental health programs have done the best job of staying in touch with students given the circumstances. However, the children – and parents – most in need of support often live in small apartments where families are doubled up, leaving little room for private conversation. Inadequate technology or internet is also a barrier.

Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, we had too few mental health providers with months-long wait times for children in crisis. Although the Department of Health Care Finance has helped reduce the barriers to telemedicine and the Department of Behavioral Health is providing technical assistance, mental health providers have had difficulty adjusting their business model to survive. Unless the District provides support, we will lose many of the providers we do have – just as the need increases.

The District should bring schools, parents and mental health providers together now to plan a return to school that puts social emotional support front and center. Without that, we cannot expect children to focus on academics this fall.


To read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia, click here


Feature photo by Ted Eytan (Source)

Chelsea Coffin is Director of the Education Policy Initiative at the D.C. Policy Center.

Tanaz Meghjani is an Education Analyst at the D.C. Policy Center.



[1] Ananat, Elizabeth O., Anna Gassman-Pines. 2020. “Snapshot of the COVID Crisis Impact on Working Families.” EconoFact. Available at: https://econofact.org/snapshot-of-the-covid-crisis-impact-on-working-families

[2] Brooks, Samantha K., Rebecca K Webster, Louise E Smith, Lisa Woodland, Simon Wessely, Neil Greenberg, Gideon James Rubin. 2020. “The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence.” The Lancet. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30460-8/fulltext

[3] 2008 Presidential Task Force on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma in Children and Adolescents. 2008. “Children and Trauma.” American Psychological Association. Available at: https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/children-trauma-update


Chelsea Coffin

Director of the Education Policy Initiative
D.C. Policy Center

Chelsea Coffin joined the D.C. Policy Center in September 2017 as the Director of the Education Policy Initiative. Her research focuses on how schools connect to broader dynamics in the District of Columbia. She has authored reports on diversity in D.C.’s schools, the D.C. schools with the best improvement for at-risk students, and the transition after high school in D.C. Chelsea has also conducted planning analysis at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, carried out research at the World Bank, and taught secondary school with the Peace Corps in Mozambique.

Chelsea holds a Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College and a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in International Economics and Development.

You can reach Chelsea at chelsea@dcpolicycenter.org.

Tanaz Meghjani

Former Education Analyst
D.C. Policy Center

Tanaz Meghjani served on the D.C. Policy Center staff as an Education Analyst from September 2019 to July 2021.

In this role, Tana conducted data analysis and supported the Policy Center’s Education Policy Initiative. Prior to joining the D.C. Policy Center, Tanaz worked as a Consultant at Quadrant Strategies, a research and strategy firm based in Washington, D.C. She has also worked as an analyst at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and as a researcher at Paste Magazine.

Tanaz is originally from Atlanta, GA and holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Yale University.