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Opinion: ‘They’ve got to start seeing … hope’

Plans are taking shape in Clark County, Nevada, to get students back into public school buildings as quickly as possible. The impetus is a growing concern about students’ mental health. It’s a story that should grab school administrators across Oklahoma.

The New York Times wrote Sunday about a rash of suicides involving students Clark County, the nation’s fifth-largest school district. At least 18 students have died by suicide since the coronavirus-related closure of schools last March. That total is double the number seen in all of 2019.

Six students died by suicide from mid-March through June 30. A dozen more died by suicide between July 1 and Dec. 31.

“When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore,” the district's superintendent, Jesus Jara, told the Times.

The importance of in-person learning for most children cannot be overstated, and not simply because remote learning can hurt students’ ability to stay on track academically. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said being away from school adversely impacts children’s emotional, social and behavioral well-being. Extended closures “can be harmful to children’s mental health and can increase the likelihood that children engage in unhealthy behaviors,” CDC researchers said last year.

The Times’ story noted that there is no clear link between school closures and adolescent suicides. “Even in normal circumstances, suicides are impulsive, unpredictable and difficult to ascribe to specific causes,” the newspaper said. “The pandemic has created conditions unlike anything mental health professionals have seen before, making causation that much more difficult to determine.”

However, Greta Massetti, a CDC expert who studies the effects of violence and trauma on children, said there is “definitely reason to be concerned because it makes conceptual sense.”

Massetti pointed out that mental health services children rely on at schools have been curtailed. She also said that since the lockdowns and closures, districts are reporting suicide clusters and many districts are struggling to connect students to services.

Many Oklahoma school districts, after closing in March for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, have returned to classrooms full time. Many others, including Oklahoma City, are working with blended schedules that include some days in class and some days learning remotely. Some districts remain online only.

The Washington Post, citing the CDC, reported that the number of emergency room visits related to mental health has climbed significantly among young people since the pandemic began, compared with the same period in 2019.

In Clark County, the school board recently approved a phased-in return of some elementary school grades and groups of struggling students.

“We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them,” Jara said. “They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.” Hear hear!

Owen Canfield III

Owen Canfield has written editorials for The Oklahoman since 2003. Prior to that, he spent 19 years with The Associated Press in Oklahoma City. He is a 1981 graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He and his wife, Lori, have four children. Read more ›