Abstract: An Examination of School District Reopening Plans for Mental Health Supports amid COVID-19 School Reopening (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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An Examination of School District Reopening Plans for Mental Health Supports amid COVID-19 School Reopening

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Tasha Childs, MSW, LSW, LMSW, PhD Candidate, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Aidyn Iachini, PhD, MSW, LSW, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Background and Purpose: COVID-19 school closures during Spring 2019 led to lapses in mental health services at a time when students and families needed them most. As school districts considered reopening strategies for Fall 2020, consideration of mental health was critical, yet it’s not clear if school district reopening plans focused on mental health services, or whether school social worker were involved in the development of those plans. This exploratory qualitative study focused on one southeastern state sought to answer: 1) Do South Carolina (SC) school district reopening plans include mental health supports? 2) Of those plans that include mental health supports, what types of services and supports are described as being offered? 3) To what extent, and how, were school social workers involved in developing the district reopening plans?

Methods: Data were collected via 67 publicly accessible school district reopening plans, out of 80 total districts, from the SC Department of Education website and 15 virtual interviews with school social workers during the first full academic year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study focused on school social workers’ responses to one interview question, “School districts released reopening plans prior to the school year. Were you involved in helping to develop these plans?” Participants were then prompted with “Can you share a bit more about how you were involved, and in what aspects of the plan you helped develop?” Of the 15 school social workers, most of the participants identified as female (80%, n=12), followed by male (20%, n=3). Fifty-three percent of participants identified as Black or African American (n=8), 40% as White or Caucasian (n=6), and 1% as Afro Latina (n=1). All data were imported and analyzed in MaxQDA using a qualitative content analysis approach. Plans were deductively coded for mental health supports and then inductively coded as types of supports emerged. Interviews were deductively coded into three groups: no involvement, involved and invited, and involved not invited. Discussions occurred between the two coders to reach consensus when there were any coding discrepancies.

Results: Of the 67 reopening plans, only 43% mentioned mental health services and supports. Most school district reopening plans described Tier I universal prevention services and supports (83%) and a process for mental health identification and referral (72%). Fewer included Tier II - early intervention - and Tier III - targeted and intensive services (41%). Of the school social workers interviewed, only three were involved and invited to develop their school district reopening plans, and when involved, advocated for mental health services and supports for their students.

Conclusions and Implications: School district reopening plans provide insight into whether mental health services and supports were prioritized amid school reopening within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic continues, school social workers have critical roles to serve not only related to direct service delivery, but also supporting school districts more broadly in designing mental health service delivery systems that respond to the ongoing and exacerbated mental health needs faced by students and families.