Abstract: Socioemotional Loss during COVID-19 School Closures: Implications for School-Based Mental Health Practitioners (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Socioemotional Loss during COVID-19 School Closures: Implications for School-Based Mental Health Practitioners

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Samantha Bates, PhD, Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University, OH
Danielle R. Eugene, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX
Background and Purpose: Schools are critical settings where youth develop life and social skills. Early school closures and cancellations of afterschool programs, extracurricular activities, and summer programs are theorized to have contributed to academic learning loss. However, less well understood is whether students also experienced "socioemotional loss" due to missed social and developmental opportunities during COVID-19 closures. The following research questions guided our study: (a) Upon returning to school after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, what were students' unmet non-academic needs? (b) What percent of students experienced "socioemotional loss" during the COVID-19 pandemic (as measured by a re-assessment of their SEL competencies after returning to school for 12 weeks)? and (c) What, if any, demographic characteristics and unmet non-academic needs predicted socioemotional loss during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Methods: The current study utilized secondary data from 396 middle school students in August 2020 (T1) and November 2020 (T2) in one large middle school in the southern part of the United States. School leaders assessed students' SEL competencies and non-academic needs at the beginning of the school year and the end of the first grading period (12 weeks later). SEL competencies were measured using the Social and Emotional Competency Assessment Short Form (SECA). Researchers also created an indicator of socioemotional loss by taking students' overall SECA score at T1 and subtracting their T2 score. We then examined basic frequencies and descriptive statistics to determine students' unmet non-academic needs and changes in their SECA scores from T1 to T2. Next, we conducted a linear regression analysis using a subsample of students reporting socioemotional loss to examine what demographic characteristics and unmet non-academic needs predicted socioemotional loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistical significance was set at p < 0.05.

Results: Overall, 3% to 14% of the students reported unmet non-academic needs upon returning to school after the COVID-19 pandemic. The greatest unmet non-academic needs reported by students were food, housing, healthcare, and mental health care. Approximately 48% of students reported experiencing lower SEL competencies upon returning to school. The linear regression analysis indicated that living in a single-parent household was the most significant predictor of socioemotional loss during the pandemic (β = 0.20, p =0.01) while holding all other demographic characteristics and unmet non-academic needs constant in the model. Based on our findings, students' unmet non-academic needs did not predict declines in socioemotional competencies during the pandemic.

Conclusions and Implications: Data gathered in 2019 suggested approximately 40% of school-aged youth reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year (Bitsko et al., 2022), and the pandemic has only exacerbated these risks. Among students in our sample, nearly half reported a loss of socioemotional skills based on their self-assessments following the first grading period. School-based mental health practitioners need to be aware of the ways socioemotional skills, such as interacting with peers, building relationships, and making decisions influence all aspects of students' school experiences and increase their risks for experiencing social isolation, bullying, and poor coping.