Mental Health, Staffing & Later Start Times: How San Diego Schools Are Addressing Student Wellness

The first term of school is coming to a close in San Diego as we enter the holiday season, but students and staff are still grappling with a unique set of challenges. It’s only the second year of full-time, in-person learning after the COVID-19 closures, so while many problems such as mask mandates and quarantine requirements have come to an end, we’ve discovered that there are still obstacles to overcome.

One of the most prominent challenges is addressing student mental wellness as kids work to recover from the trauma, academic setbacks and emotional strain caused by the pandemic. School districts like San Diego Unified are looking to tackle these and other related issues like declining enrollment and increased absenteeism this year.

Other priorities for schools throughout the U.S. include improving access to emotional and behavioral health services, boosting family engagement and supporting our teachers. San Diego districts are also looking to ensure a smooth transition to later start times and expand transitional kindergarten programs as new laws come into effect.

Keep reading to learn more about what San Diego and other school districts are doing to support the mental wellness of both students and staff to make this year the best one yet.

Making Mental Health a Priority

Across the country, student mental health has become a top priority, and San Diego is no exception. Studies have shown that an alarming number of kids are struggling with issues like anxiety or depression, leading to concerns that enough isn’t being done by schools to meet their needs. Teachers are also having trouble coping with stress and burnout as classes resume this year.

To ensure the mental wellness of students, San Diego’s Unified District has developed a three-year, $30 million plan to expand emotional and behavioral health services. Mental health clinicians are now available on every middle and high school campus, and students have access to a counselor more days each week than they did before.

Additionally, the district has a Health and Wellness Program that promotes the well-being of staff with access to an employee assistance program (EAP), self-help resources and Care Navigators that provide tailored plans to support the mind and body. The mental health of our educators is also important since unhappy teachers can lead to unhappy students.

Meeting Staffing Challenges

Adequate staffing has always been a concern for schools. However, pandemic-related challenges, a competitive labor market and low morale have worsened the situation and exacerbated long-standing issues within the profession. As a result, more teachers than ever are looking elsewhere for job opportunities, while the National Education Association reports that another 55% are thinking about leaving earlier than expected.

To combat this, San Diego districts are adding new positions in elementary schools and providing hiring incentives to attract nurses and special education teachers. While it’s still a struggle to find bus drivers, front-office workers and after-school aides, schools are also offering substitutes more pay and boosting counselor staffing to fill in the gaps.

Despite labor shortages, educators say it’s crucial to keep kids back in the classroom. The learning and social-emotional setbacks of the pandemic have left a mark on students, but getting them back into schools supports their overall health and academic development.

Implementing Transitional Kindergarten

Transitional kindergarten is an optional grade level that acts like a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. In San Diego, it is now provided at all elementary schools as the program expands ahead of a state law that will require it to be offered to every child by 2025.

Transitional kindergarten provides children with a valuable opportunity to learn and grow in an environment that’s academically challenging and nurtures their social, behavioral and cognitive skills. Studies have shown that kids who attend transitional kindergarten programs are more likely to do well in school and go on to attend college.

Other benefits include teaching important pre-literacy and pre-math skills that prepare students for kindergarten the following year. By allowing them to build a foundation and develop their aptitude for learning, kids will be better able to adapt and succeed in school.

Getting a Later Start

In response to long-standing research that shows the relationship between earlier start times and poor academic performance, California has implemented a new state law that allows schools to begin later, at 8 or 8:30 a.m. depending on the grade. This lets students sleep in longer, so they are more alert and prepared to learn in the mornings.

Studies have shown that this shift also provides other benefits. Students who are well-rested are less likely to engage in risk-taking behavior or show depressive symptoms. Additionally, teachers have noticed fewer disciplinary issues, better attendance, lower truancy rates and a modest increase in the average GPA due to later start times.

Experts have called the change necessary because as many as two-thirds of teens and adolescents are sleep deprived. Dr. Howard Taras, the San Diego Unified district physician, has said that later start times will better support their biological needs and may improve students’ physical, emotional and behavioral health.

Relaxing COVID-19 Measures

COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, but the risk has waned enough to where some doctors are recommending a return to normalcy in schools. The pandemic upheaval has led to worse mental health, more suicides and rising overdoses among young people, so experts say it’s important to strike a balance as kids return to in-person learning.

Children are already less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, and the rollout of vaccines for those under the age of 17 has provided even more protection. In response, several states have lifted mask requirements in schools, including California. However, San Diego might change their protocols if more outbreaks occur.

Some parents have welcomed the end of mask mandates while others are worried, but districtwide policies are guided by the recommendations of COVID-19 researchers. At the end of the day, the number one priority is ensuring the safety of students and staff as conditions change.

At Sokya, we know how important it is for our kids to be safe, happy and healthy. As San Diego and other school districts make important changes this year to improve the well-being of students and teachers, we can also support their mental health with access to therapy, groups, coaching and more. Our services are available online, in person or through our mobile app, making it easy to build a mental wellness circle that works for you and your family. Click here or call 866-65-SOKYA to connect with a Care Coordinator and find your balance today.

More than 50% of Americans struggle with mental health.

Headlight is now collaborating with health plans and companies to make therapy more accessible and affordable. Speak to a Care Coordinator today.