Resilient Schools: Survey Reveals Insights from Students and Faculty Amid COVID-19
Nina L. Kumar
and Suniya S. Luthar
As the world continues to experience the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts continue to try to understand the virus and its many effects and impacts and how it will evolve over time. Among the many models and predictions about how much longer it’s likely to last or how and when the virus will spike again, there’s one crisis that we—as a society and schools—need to be paying closer attention to: mental health challenges.
According to 2020 data from the American Psychological Association, rates of serious anxiety and depression have been climbing, with increased stress levels documented among adults in general and parents in particular. Conversations about the ill effects of COVID-19 and distance learning have generally focused on children’s losses in education, with little attention paid to their mental health. There’s no question that children’s levels of stress and distress also will increase the longer COVID-19 is unrestrained. And for schools, it will be important to proactively do everything possible to foster well-being in their own communities, as experts suggest that “mental illness will be the next wave of COVID.”
Our work with schools has shown that over the years, schools have paid increasing attention to social-emotional learning and promoting resilience. The term “resilience” refers to the phenomenon where people do well in the face of adversity, and this “doing well” is affected by many risk and protective factors such as relationships at home, relationships at school, and attributes of individuals themselves. Through many years of partnership with schools and communities, Authentic Connections has been working to foster resilience and improve mental health through data and insights. We’ve created and administered surveys, rooted in 30 years of peer-reviewed research, to provide schools with rigorous data about their individual communities. Summarized results allow schools to see how their own students fare on important mental health indices compared with national norms from similar schools, and learn which risks and protective processes are especially influential within their own communities. Collectively, these findings help provide leaders a focused, customized list of the most important next steps to drive meaningful improvements at their own schools.
In spring 2020, we launched two new surveys to specifically assess the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in schools: the Student Resilience Survey (SRS) and Faculty Resilience Survey (FRS). As we have done with other surveys, we partnered with participating schools in gathering data on their community mental health—on measures of student and faculty well-being and modifiable aspects of life (risk and protective factors)—especially relevant during the pandemic. In each collaboration, school leaders distributed the surveys and our team analyzed all (anonymized) responses; we summarized major findings and from these, arrived at tailored, actionable recommendations that were integrated with lessons from research on resilience.
Between April and June, we used the SRS and FRS to collect data on 15,000 students and 5,000 faculty members at about 70 independent schools across the United States. Through these collaborations, we found that some risk and protective processes repeatedly emerged as critical across all independent schools assessed. Specifically, we found four common themes among schools that did best in terms of mental health during the pandemic: They fostered a strong sense of community, communicated clearly and consistently, prioritized mental health, and frequently sought and addressed feedback.
These early results offer important insights for school leaders starting a new school year amid continued uncertainty—a year that will look quite different than any other.
Fostering a Community
Schools that were faring well in the spring ensured ongoing support for staff, students, and parents, providing frequent opportunities to connect with each other. Decades of resilience research have taught us that resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships. While coping skills and techniques like yoga and meditation are important, we know that connection with others is the single most important protective factor in the face of high and prolonged life stress.
Schools have used various formats to promote and maintain community cohesiveness during distance learning. Some schools provided unstructured opportunities for small-group connections like happy hours and faculty lounge hours via Zoom. Others devised strategies to ensure that all staff and faculty were being supported—as groups and individuals. One school created a committee dedicated to caring for the adults in the community. This committee distributed yard signs, thank-you cards, meals when needed, and small tokens of appreciation—all gestures that community members deeply appreciated. At another school, the head of school sent a daily email message to all faculty and staff (with specific information updates or general community issues), ensuring a constant flow of communication; additionally, different members of the administration team sent handwritten notes to parents and children. These initiatives helped maintain a strong sense of togetherness, enabling people to feel tethered to their school communities in the face of the prolonged physical separation as a result of social distancing.
At these schools, the task of fostering a sense of community did not fall solely on the shoulders of the head of school. In fact, when this responsibility was distributed among leaders and community members who wanted to contribute, the benefits were greater. We know from resilience research that during times of shared adversity, people feel better when they are able to help others who are struggling. In one school, a group of staff members formed a team that made personal calls to their peers each week to check in and chat. While the phone conversations weren’t necessarily long, they made those who received the calls feel cared for, and gave those who made the phone calls gratification in supporting the greater good. Overall, all these practices fostered a sense of community solidarity at schools.
The second major theme that consistently emerged was the need for clear and frequent communication about how expectations were shifting during distance learning. Faculty and students were both very appreciative when administrators clearly conveyed changes made around workload, curriculum content, and the amount of homework assigned. With regard to curriculum content, it was helpful when department heads proactively delineated, for each class, the most important concepts that students were required to grasp before passing that class and those requirements that might be let go, given the challenges of learning in this virtual format. Students also appreciated clarity and decisiveness around grading policies adopted in the school.
Beyond communication around curriculum and content, students and staff appreciated transparency and clarity around plans and procedures for the current semester (spring 2020) and for the fall. In the faculty and staff survey, many indicated they appreciated hearing thoughts from leadership on future directions, even if they weren’t yet finalized. For example, they preferred hearing statements along the lines of “I’m not sure, but this is what I’m thinking …” much more than hearing nothing at all. Clear and direct communication helped ensure that all members of the community felt engaged with the school community and aligned on clear goals and expectations during the pandemic.
Prioritizing Mental Health
A deliberate emphasis on psychological well-being also emerged among schools that were doing well. Staff and students appreciated mental health days, increased availability of counselors and advisers, and opportunities to participate in support groups. At one school, students were allowed to take mental health days and step away from their school responsibilities. In their survey responses, many students noted that they appreciated the opportunity to step away with no questions asked. Several other schools abbreviated their school weeks to four days a week, giving students and staff a full day (often Wednesdays) to connect with peers, catch up with work, and recharge.
A central factor in resilience was support from school adults; we often heard of counselors, teachers, and administrators going above and beyond their outlined responsibilities to provide support. In some instances, counselors met with students on breaks and weekends or outside of normal working hours to allow for privacy and give students the ability to talk away from their families. One student said, “[The school] is very open for mental health problems and class supports. Teachers are open to hearing what you have to say and help you through any hard times.”
Some schools also increased the number of advisory sessions per week, which many students found invaluable. One student said, “I think one of the best things that the school is doing is how advisory is working. My adviser makes sure to check up with everyone during the meetings and occasionally have private meetings with every student. This makes me feel like my adviser cares about my well-being.” When schools clearly prioritized attention to mental health, this greatly enhanced feelings among students and adults that they were genuinely valued.
Offering all members of the community opportunities to provide frequent feedback on processes and procedures was another theme among schools that fared well in the spring. Equally important, there was clear responsiveness to what they heard from their constituents; administrators would communicate specific changes and next steps that were made as a result of the feedback obtained.
Many respondents specifically pointed to their school conducting the Resilience Surveys as one of the things that their school was doing well because it indicated administrators’ concern about them as people and not just work colleagues. In response to open-ended questions, both faculty and students explicitly appreciated the opportunities to share their feelings and provide specific feedback on what was going well at school and what might be improved. For example, at one school a staff member wrote, “This survey makes me feel like someone cares. Thank you for caring.” Similarly, a student wrote, “[my school has] been posting surveys every week in order to get input from students as to what is working and what isn’t, and they are changing things based on that input.” Effectively collecting and responding to feedback from the community was, once again, extremely important in helping people feel cared about.
Overall, across schools, there were some distinct features among those doing well despite all the disruptions from the pandemic and distance learning. These schools had each fostered a supportive, warm, and understanding community. They were committed to clarity and transparency in decision making and to proactively fostering and monitoring well-being and mental health. For the fall and start of the new school year, these schools have prioritized next steps derived from the data, focusing on the issues and subgroups that most need attention within their schools.
School leaders must proactively ensure that their communities remain connected this fall. Many have delineated specific plans to maintain connections with students, staff, and parents. These include scheduled biweekly opportunities for the parents to visit with each other in a virtual format; such preplanned gatherings remove barriers that some of us feel when reaching out for connections individually. Equally important, there need to be systems in place to ensure that the leaders and administrators themselves receive support from faculty (and parents) as they weigh difficult, complex choices about resuming fall classes in person, virtually, or in a hybrid environment.
Moving forward, it will be more important than ever for all schools to remain highly vigilant about their school community’s mental health and to keep a pulse on the well-being of children as well as adults. We must also pay close attention to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion; follow-up assessments must deliberately track the well-being of groups based on ethnicity and race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Schools that have best weathered the COVID-19 pandemic thus far—shown relatively high resilience—have come together in shared support of each other guided by sound data on their community’s psychological well-being. These issues must continue to be top of mind as we return this fall.
Get greater context about the health and well-being of school communities with these NAIS resources:
Nina L. Kumar
Nina L. Kumar is cofounder and chief executive officer of Authentic Connections.
Suniya S. Luthar
Suniya S. Luthar is cofounder and chief research officer at Authentic Connections and professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.