Social distancing dividers are seen in a classroom at a school near Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

School closures were intended to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for many students this has ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions that negatively affect students and their families.

The data speaks for itself: there have been no reported COVID-19 related deaths in children and young adults under the age of 19 in San Diego County. However, there have been several deaths in this age group by suicide, drug overdose and domestic violence.

While suicide is the tenth overall leading cause of death in the United States, it is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 12 to 17. That is why substantial funding for counseling and mental health services must be in place if our schools remain shuttered and our children continue to be isolated and forced to learn remotely during the 2020-2021 school year.

The decision to keep schools closed in San Diego County was based on spikes in the number of coronavirus cases. The surge in COVID cases resulted in San Diego County being placed on California’s coronavirus watch list, and, until the county is removed from the watch list, public and private schools will not be allowed to hold in-class instruction. Under this new mandate it is unlikely that San Diego school districts will be able to have in-school classroom instruction at the start of the upcoming school year.

It seems that the primary goal of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate to shutter in-class instruction was to keep students healthy and prevent the spread of coronavirus among students, teachers and other adults. However, the mandate failed to adequately address or prepare for negative effects the school closures would have on our children’s mental health.

Mark Powell

School closures affect families beyond a disruption in their child’s education. There is evidence that school closures will impact mental health services, and mental health issues may increase among students due to fewer opportunities to engage with peers. As schools remain closed, students do not have the same access to key mental health services, nor do they have teachers and counselors monitoring them for mental health or abuse issues, and existing mental health problems among children and adolescents may be exacerbated.

The good news is, school districts are in a great position to provide students with mental health crisis information through the use of online distance-learning technology. Suicide hotline numbers and mental health contact information can be displayed on distance learning platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom or whatever is being utilized by the particular district. Making this information available to students and parents as they monitor their child’s education while they learn online is a great way to help them find the resources they need to cope with the mental health issues during the statewide school lockdown.

Understanding that there is a nationwide suicide crisis, the Federal Communications Commission recently voted unanimously to finalize 988 as the number students could call to reach the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline. As of now, students in suicidal crisis can reach that hotline by dialing 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)—but that number may be too hard for students to remember. However, use of 988 won’t start until July 16, 2022, so we must look at other ways to communicate this information to students during the pandemic.

Addressing student mental health issues must become a priority, and this can only be accomplished with proper funding and sufficient personnel. In San Diego County, the ratio of students to counselors is 686 to 1. For psychologists it’s 887 to 1, and for social workers it’s a staggering 7,285 to 1. Though we abound in other resources to help students, not enough money has been allocated to hire and utilize these much needed mental health professionals throughout the school district.

If students are limited in their access to mental health services due to a countywide school closure, then we need to provide them and their families with the resources they need to access mental health service on their own and to recognize the warning signs of suicide. The data is conclusive: more students are dying from mental health issues than from COVID-19.

If mental health support resources are not made widely available to students through online technology, then parents should be given the choice to allow their children to return to on-campus instruction or continue their education through distance learning. All things considered, a student’s mental health should be given the same priority as their physical health.

Mark Powell is a member of the San Diego County Board of Education. He has been a teacher, vice principal and dean of students at San Diego Unified School District. He is an adjunct professor at National University’s Sanford College of Education.