For fourth-grader Leah Rainey in Cecilia, Kentucky, the school day kicks off with what her teacher calls an "emotional check-in."
"It’s great to see you. How are you feeling?" chirps a cheery voice on her laptop screen.
The voice asks her to click an emoji matching her state of mind: Happy. Sad. Worried. Angry. Frustrated. Calm. Silly. Tired.
Depending on how she answers, Leah, 9, then gets advice from a cartoon avatar on managing her mood, the Associated Press reported.
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She also gets questions: Have you eaten breakfast? Are you hurt or sick? Is everything OK at home? Is someone at school being unkind?
Today, Leah chooses "silly" — but says she struggled with sadness during online learning.
At Lakewood Elementary School in Kentucky, all 420 students will start their days the same way this year as the back to school season gets underway, the AP also noted.
The rural Kentucky school is one of thousands nationwide using the technology to screen students’ state of mind — and alert teachers to any child who is struggling.
And while many parents and caregivers are right now consumed with back to school shopping and planning — do the kids have the clothes they need? The shoes? The jackets? The supplies? — the mental health of students is very much top of mind for a lot of people this year.
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In certain ways, the year’s back-to-school season will restore a degree of pre-COVID normalcy: Most districts have lifted mask mandates, dropped COVID vaccine requirements and ended rules on social distancing and quarantines.
But many of the pandemic’s longer-lasting impacts remain a troubling reality for schools. Among them: the harmful effects of isolation and remote learning on children’s emotional well-being.
As Dr. Nicole Saphier, M.D., wrote in May 2022 in a Fox News op-ed, "The single largest domestic policy error in recent American history is the prolonged closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and the disregard for our youth’s well-being."
She added, "The New York Times recently reported on the rising prevalence of mental illness and suicide among adolescents the last couple of years." However, she said, "Did we really need a year of data to show us children were suffering?"
Among her other points: "Increased mental health visits by teens were being reported by Fair Health in August 2020 from assessing insurance claims during March and April during the first wave of the pandemic, but pediatricians and other experts remained quiet," she wrote.
The pressure on schools to figure out solutions has never been greater, given that student mental health reached crisis levels last year, according to the AP.
Nationwide, districts are using federal pandemic money to hire more mental health specialists, the AP said. They're rolling out new coping tools and expanding curriculum that prioritizes emotional health.
Yet "rising mental illness in adolescents pre-dated the pandemic," pointed out Dr. Saphier. "Social isolation from pandemic-related restrictions fueled the existing mental health problem, especially as it pertains to gun violence in young people."
In addition, some parents and guardians don’t believe schools should be involved in mental health at all.
So-called social-emotional learning, or SEL, has become the latest political flashpoint: Some conservatives say schools use it to promote progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality, or that a focus on well-being takes attention from academics, the AP said.
Yet at schools like Lakewood in Kentucky, educators say helping students manage emotions and stress will benefit them in the classroom and throughout life. The school, in a farming community an hour away from Louisville, has used federal money to create "take-a-break" corners in classrooms.
Students can sort through a "self-regulation kit" that offers tips on deep breathing, squishy stress balls and acupuncture rings, said school counselor Shelly Kerr, as the AP reported.
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The school plans to build a "reset room" this fall — part of an emerging national trend to create campus sanctuaries so students can decompress and speak with a counselor.
The online student screener Lakewood uses, called Closegap, helps teachers identify shy, quiet kids who might need to talk and would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Closegap founder Rachel Miller launched the online platform in 2019 with a few schools and saw interest explode after the pandemic. This year, she said, more than 3,600 U.S schools will be using the technology, which has free and premium versions, the AP reported.
"We are finally beginning to recognize that school is more than just teaching the kids reading, writing and arithmetic," Dan Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association, told the AP.
Just as free lunch programs are based on the idea that a hungry child can’t learn, more schools are embracing the idea that a cluttered or troubled mind cannot focus on schoolwork, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the fragility of mental health among American youth — who had been experiencing a rise in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for years, experts say.
A recent report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 44% of high school students said they experienced "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" during the pandemic — with girls and LGBTQ youth reporting the highest levels of poor mental health and suicide attempts.
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If a silver lining exists, the pandemic raised awareness of the crisis and helped de-stigmatize the idea of talking openly about mental health, while also bringing attention to schools’ shortcomings in handling it, the AP said.
The Biden administration recently announced over $500 million to expand mental health services in the country’s schools, adding to federal and state money that has poured into schools to cope with pandemic-era needs.
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Still, many are skeptical schools’ responses are enough.
"All of these opportunities and resources are temporary," junior Claire Chi, who attends State College Area High School in central Pennsylvania, told the AP.
Last year, her school added emergency counseling and therapy dogs, among other supports, but most of that help lasted a day or two, Chi said. And that’s "not really a mental health investment for students."
This year, the school says it has added more counselors and plans mental health training for all 10th graders.
Some critics don’t want to see mental health support in schools.
Asra Nomani, a mom from Fairfax County, Virginia, said schools are using the mental health crisis as a "Trojan horse" to introduce liberal ideas about sexual and racial identity, the AP noted. She also worries schools lack the expertise to deal with student mental illness.
"Social-emotional well-being has become an excuse to intervene in the lives of children in the most intimate of ways that are both dangerous and irresponsible," Nomani said, "because they’re in the hands of people who are not trained professionals."
Even so, schools are having trouble hiring counselors — mirroring the shortages in other American industries.
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The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per school counselor, which few states come close to meeting.
For the 2020-21 school year only two states — New Hampshire and Vermont — achieved that goal, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Some states face staggeringly high ratios: Arizona averages one counselor to 716 students; in Michigan, 1 to 638; and in Minnesota, 1 to 592.
Despite more funding, school salaries can’t compete with private counseling practices, which are also overwhelmed and trying to hire more staff.
Another challenge for schools: identifying struggling kids before they’re in emotional crisis. At the Houston Independent School District, one of the largest nationwide, with 277 schools and nearly 200,000 students, students are asked each morning to hold up fingers showing how they feel.
One finger means a child is hurting deeply; five means he or she feels great.
"It’s identifying your brush fires early in the day," said Sean Ricks, the district’s senior manager of crisis intervention.
Today, Houston teachers give mindfulness lessons, with ocean sounds played via YouTube. Meanwhile, two dogs have joined the district’s crisis team.
Grant-funding helped Houston build relaxation rooms, known as Thinkeries, at 10 schools last year, costing about $5,000 each, the AP noted.
District data show campuses with Thinkeries, which sport bean bag chairs and warmly colored walls, saw a 62% decrease in calls to a crisis line last year, Ricks said. The district is building more this year.
But the rooms themselves are not a panacea. For such calming rooms to work, schools must teach students to recognize they feel angry or frustrated in the first place.
One father in New York, an Army veteran, also pointed out that dealing with stress and mental health issues — and fixing them — lies mostly with parents and guardians.
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"Children need to be taught the basics on how to deal with the real world," he told Fox News Digital. "They don't need coddling, because that's not the real world."
He also said, "Some children are stressed because of their parents' stress. Today, we have parents passing their stress along to their kids. Good parents don't do that."
And as Dr. Saphier noted in her op-ed in Fox News Digital, "No one cares more about kids than their parents. The parental movement has already begun with the fight for our children as it pertains to curriculum and the restrictions from the pandemic."
She is an assistant professor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College, a Fox News medical contributor and the bestselling author of "Make America Healthy Again" and "Panic Attack: Playing Politics with Science in the Fight Against COVID-19."
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.