Beyond the Mask: Promoting Transformation and Healing in School Reopening


The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the mental health challenges of youth and young adults, many of whom struggled to access mental health services even before the pandemic. Despite the high levels of need, many young people don’t have access to culturally relevant mental health services due to cost, access, and other barriers. School-based mental health services offer a promising strategy in addressing the high levels of unmet need.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress appropriated funds for schools primarily through the new Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). The American Rescue Plan allocated $122 billion for school reopening. ESSER funding offers an opportunity to invest in the mental health of young people; however, schools must be intentional about substantially investing in student mental health.

The U.S. Department of Education required each state to submit a reopening plan outlining how they were using and planned on using ESSER funds. CLASP conducted an analysis of 37 state plans* to better understand if and how schools were prioritizing student mental health. In this brief series, we evaluated how schools were prioritizing trauma-informed, culturally responsive, healing-centered mental health care; Tier 1 supports like Social Emotional Learning (SEL); a behavioral health workforce diverse in both identity and credentials; collecting quality mental health data; and authentic youth engagement.

Based on our analysis, we developed the following recommendations:

  • Prioritize Healing-Centered Care: While many states acknowledged the importance of culturally responsive and trauma-informed care, no state acknowledged the importance of healing-centered care. Healing-centered care is holistic, extending beyond diagnosis to focus on culture, spirituality, civic action, and collective healing. Healing-centered care allows for a strong focus on prevention, individual wellbeing, and community.i
  • Prioritize Culturally Responsive SEL: While many states prioritized SEL in their reopening plans, most states are not explicitly integrating SEL with culturally responsive practices. When divorced from racial equity, SEL can harm young people by reinforcing white, patriarchal, heteronormative, and ableist values. ii
  • Prioritize Equity in Hiring: While some states are focused on expanding their school-based behavioral health workforce, most schools are not integrating providers with various credentials, and professional and lived expertise. Schools should invest in non-traditional health care providers, peer support models, and culturally derived healing practices.
  • Prioritize Disaggregating Mental Health Data: Schools should be intentional about collecting student mental health data to track needs over time. However, schools should also disaggregate that data by race and ethnicity to better understand which populations are or are not accessing mental health supports.
  • Prioritize Authentic Youth Engagement: States were required to solicit stakeholder feedback in developing their reopening plans, including feedback from students. States differed in how they chose to consult students in their reopening plans, but no state explicitly mentioned a student advisory council focused on mental health. Given that mental health was a primary concern among stakeholders, districts should be intentional about consulting with students in developing mental health services and programs.

*CLASP analyzed the 37 plans that were available as of July 5th, 2021. Plans submitted after this date were not included in our analysis.