By Maria Caspani and Hannah Beier
OREFIELD, Pa., May 6 (Reuters) - As COVID-19 upended education during the past year, Pennsylvania middle school teacher Jennifer Lundberg often began her English lessons gauging the mental wellbeing of her students.
Sometimes, she would turn the lights off and dedicate a few minutes of in-person class to walking the kids through exercises that asked them to identify stressors they were experiencing.
With her own teenage daughter suffering from bouts of depression and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, the veteran teacher saw evidence all around her of the urgent need for mental health support for young people.
"They are struggling in a way that I feel like a lot of times they don't even have words for," Lundberg said. "I've had students who have left in the middle of the day to go to the ER to get evaluated."
Lundberg teaches in the Parkland School District in Allentown, where school officials said the coronavirus has been a catalyst for getting better mental health training for staff and care for its more than 9,000 students.
Educators across the country agreed students' mental wellbeing became a bigger priority after the pandemic forced schools to shut down or operate with a mix of remote and in-person learning. Some students struggled to focus, and isolation, worry and depression took a toll on many.
A Reuters survey earlier this year of U.S. school districts serving more than 2.2 million students found that a majority reported multiple indicators of increased mental health stresses among students.
Those concerns have led to a flood of new funding and initiatives aimed at helping schools navigate the pandemic's aftermath.
The federal COVID-19 relief package included $122 billion for K-12 schools to implement "strategies to meet the social, emotional, mental health and academic needs" of the hardest-hit students. President Joe Biden's budget proposal released in April includes another $1 billion to add nurses and mental health services in public schools.
In Utah, a bill signed in March makes mental health a valid excuse for a school absence. Similar legislation has been introduced in other states including Connecticut and Maryland.
Next month, the National Center for School Mental Health will launch ClassroomWISE. The free online course will train U.S. teachers and school staff on how to create a safe and supporting classroom environment, and how to support students with mental health concerns.
Districts nationwide have said the pandemic "has kind of given them a vitamin D shot" in terms of awareness and resources, said Sharon Hoover, co-director of the government-funded center. Sustained focus will be needed for success, she added.
"We'd be kind of kidding ourselves if we think everyone's going to walk into school doors and things go back to normal," Hoover said.
Many districts still lack sufficient resources and training, however. And experts say even where there are protocols and initiatives already in place, the severity and novelty of some circumstances amid the pandemic pose challenges.
Amy Molloy, the director of school mental health resources at the non-profit Mental Health Association in New York State, said she thought the state's schools were well-positioned to attend to students' mental health thanks to legislation passed in recent years before COVID-19 hit.
But the toll of the pandemic is hard to predict.
"There's a lot of concern and uncertainty about what kind of trauma experiences, what kind of grief and loss, what kind of enhanced mental health problems... are students bringing back," Molloy said.
Before the coronavirus, insurance roadblocks had hampered the Parkland School District's efforts to provide students with one-on-one psychotherapy sessions for their mental health needs, said Brenda DeRenzo, the director of student services.
The pressure created by COVID-19 allowed the Pennsylvania district to finally overcome the financial hurdles through a partnership last fall with a local hospital that linked its middle and high school students with licensed clinicians.
This fall, when students return to full-time in-person learning, the district will implement programs to help them readjust to school and reconnect with their peers.
One initiative will link students to community outreach programs such as a food drive or a nursing home in an effort to rebuild the camaraderie lost to the pandemic, DeRenzo said.
Lundberg, who teaches at Orefield Middle School, said she plans to start hosting morning meetings with parents to facilitate more communication about how their children are coping.
"These kids are good kids, they're just done; they're burned out," she said. (Reporting by Maria Caspani and Hannah Beier in Orefield, Pennsylvania, Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)
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