School Zone: What do we know about students’ mental wellness?

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

What’s known about students’ mental wellness?

What it is: Over one-third of high school students said they had poor mental health during the pandemic, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released earlier this year found.

Nearly 30% said a parent or adult in their house lost their job.

In March, students in Montgomery County, Maryland, told the Board of Education that the county lacks easily-accessible mental health services.


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Now, as school systems in the D.C. region prepare for the fourth school year during a pandemic, they’re considering ways to address student wellness.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest school system, that comes in the form of the summer Mental Wellness Consultations program.

What it means: Fairfax’s summer program offers free 45-minute mental wellness consults. Appointments are offered to parents of any Fairfax County students, along with middle and high school students.

Amber Ong, a school system psychologist, told WTOP the program has been offered the last 10 years. Three people, including Ong, oversee the initiative, which has over 30 staff members. It has the capacity to handle over 1,000 appointment requests.

The conversations offer students an opportunity to speak about pandemic challenges, peer relationships or other conflicts they may be working through.

More information about how to make appointments is available online. The program ends Aug. 5.

Regional snapshot: This summer, Ong said the program has had “several hundred” requests that it’s been able to fulfill.

Last summer, Ong said students spoke almost exclusively about the coronavirus pandemic. Now, there have been more conversations about peer concerns related to things happening inside and outside of school.

Ong said students are dealing with “issues of equity, issues of racism, a lot of our students are exposed to a lot of heavy stuff.”

In Arlington, Virginia, school officials reported in a presentation last month that about 70% of third through fifth graders reported feeling positive emotions. The same is true for 58% of sixth through 12th graders, the survey, which was conducted this year, found.

Moving forward, the county said it plans to issue the social-emotional learning survey several times per year and provide additional training for staff members.

And in D.C., the Student Advisory Committee focused on mental health as part of its citywide survey. About a fourth of respondents said the city lacks sufficient community support and that actions aren’t taken when they speak to someone about their mental health.

The committee told the Board of Education that it recommends every school be staffed with at least one licensed mental health professional available to work with students daily.



Talking points: Ong, in Fairfax, said “just because it’s summer doesn’t mean that stress stops or life stops moving for anyone. And so we, a lot of our students who end up having appointments with us, or consultations with us, talk about family things, they talk about peer relationships, or relationships with friends. Anxiety is always a big one, too.”

D.C. Board member Eboni-Rose Thompson said during a recent meeting that the student committee’s findings on mental health were striking because “if you look at those numbers, one way, you can say, at least 75% of the young people (surveyed) don’t consistently feel like they have an adult person they can go to.”

And in Arlington, school board member Mary Kadera said during a board meeting that, “We should think about ways of clearly communicating and educating our students about building trust.”

Prince George’s County schools lifts mask mandate

Schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, ended the academic year requiring masks indoors. The requirement was quietly lifted July 1.

I caught up with WTOP’s John Domen for the latest.

Q: What do we know about whether PGCPS will have a mask mandate entering the fall?

A: At this point, masks are going to be optional, but the county didn’t really make a big deal about announcing it and I think leaders will never commit themselves to anything so far into the future.

At a certain point you might see them back, but at this point when classes begin that last week of August, it seems pretty likely that parents will not have to double-check to make sure their kids are carrying masks in their backpacks, along with their lunches and notebooks.

Q: Any insight into why the county kept it’s mandate until the end of the year?

A: When I tried to ask them about it back in late April, they pointed to vaccination metrics that they cited months before. In late February, they said they wanted to hit 80% fully-vaccinated in the county before lifting the mandate and while they got close, the numbers sort of flatlined and never got there.

They are now — but that’s only if you don’t include booster shots. It just sort of became something they didn’t want to talk about. But let’s be honest: The county was hit way harder by the pandemic in terms of total infections, serious illnesses and deaths, than most other parts of the region; and that will also influence how people respond to things.

[Read more of John’s reporting on the mask requirement on WTOP.com]

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

Equity in virtual learning: A report released by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General this week revealed over 3,200 students didn’t have access to technology for virtual learning and were “chronically absent” during the 2020-2021 school year.

The city also retroactively corrected over 39,000 attendance records, the report found.

The OIG said that D.C. Public Schools agreed with six of its recommendations, partially agreed with another six and disagreed with five.

In response to the report, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said that like other school systems, “DCPS faced challenges as we quickly pivoted to develop, stand-up and simultaneously implement a remote learning environment.”

[Read more about the report’s findings online]

What Scott’s Reading

  • 37 Prince William County schools to receive free meals this school year [WTOP]
  • DC program provides support to high school grads throughout their college journey [WTOP] 
  • Justice Thomas cancels plans to teach at DC law school [WTOP]
  • Montgomery Co. school board blocks plans for district’s first charter school [WTOP] 
  • After joining FCPS during pandemic, new teachers upbeat about futures in education [FFX Now]
  • Teachers union president says resignations, retirements up 53% from this point last year [Bethesda Beat]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Pitbull party: On Friday night, we’re off to Jiffy Lube to see Mr. 305 himself. This is sort of a holiday for me and I’ve been looking forward to it since buying Pitbull tickets back in April.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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