When schools open in the fall, whether they open online, in-person, or somewhere in between, the only thing we know for sure right now is that the school experience will look nothing like it did a year ago. Regardless of how instruction is delivered over the coming months, students are facing unprecedented upheaval. Because of the uncertainty and change that are implicit in the lives of every child due to the pandemic, it is increasingly important that schools and teachers focus on social-emotional learning as part of their plan for the upcoming school year.

Following the abrupt school closures in most districts in the latter half of the 2019-2020 school year, student experiences varied tremendously. Some students excelled in the online-only format, while others foundered. As we move into the 2020-2021 school year, it should be expected that students will experience increased anxiety, and even that students who have not experienced anxiety before will (Nissman, 2020). The events of the past six months need to be taken into account; it isn’t enough for schools to focus solely on academics and safety as we move forward. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) needs to be in the forefront as teachers and administrators work to reopen their districts.

Students, regardless of whether they have lost friends or family members, been sick themselves, or have stayed relatively safe and well at home, have endured a collective trauma (McClure, 2020), and it will be important for schools to acknowledge that and to support students as they move past it. Teaching and learning were in crisis mode for as much as a third of the last school year, and it is critical that schools address how that has impacted students’ emotional health (Walker, 2020). The abrupt shift to online learning is not the only source of trauma; students with tumultuous home lives were left without the respite school provided (Walker, 2020) and students’ essentially lost all of their social outlets overnight (Turner, 2020). Traditions and celebrations such as moving up days, kindergarten graduations, and new student orientations have all been lost to COVID, and teachers and administrators need to understand that these are very real losses in the lives of their students.

There are many resources available to schools as they plan how best to support students’ social-emotional learning and mental health as they return to school, regardless of what school looks like. State reopening guidelines in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, for example, include requirements around the social-emotional needs of students as they return to school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has released guidance on leveraging social and emotional learning as part of the reopening process. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that teachers and staff should receive professional development around social-emotional health and learning, and note that schools should have a place in place to help students who are unable to attend in-person school when schools reopen for the majority of students. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has provided a checklist for parents as schools reopen that includes mental health and social-emotional wellbeing considerations.

The suggestions in this guidance will help teachers and administrators as they navigate the return to school this fall, whether school is in-person, remote, or some combination of the two.

Related PLS Course

Social-Emotional Learning: Essential to Student Success™

In this course you will explore the five areas of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. In addition, classroom-applicable strategies and activities for developing a social-emotional culture, while fostering each of the social-emotional areas in students, are modeled so that educators can maximize student learning and success.

This course is offered in a remote learning, online format.

Photo Credit:

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action


American Academy of Pediatrics (2020). COVID-19 planning considerations: guidance for school re-entry. Retrieved from: https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/

CASEL (2020). Leveraging the power of social-emotional learning: As you prepare to reopen and renew your school community. Retrieved from: https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/CASEL_Leveraging-SEL-as-You-Prepare-to-Reopen-and-Renew.pdf

Center for Disease Control (2020). COVID 19: Checklists to guide parents, guardians, and caregivers. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/parent-checklist.html

McClure, B. (2020). Why every school must have a social-emotional plan before reopening. Retrieved from: https://www.lessonsforsel.com/post/why-every-school-must-have-a-social-emotional-learning-plan-prior-to-reopening

Nissan, C. (2020). Expect heightened anxiety, behavioral issues in returning students. Retrieved from: https://districtadministration.com/expect-heightened-anxiety-behavioral-issues-in-returning-students/

Turner, C. (2020). Closed schools are creating more trauma for students. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/20/828026185/school-counselors-have-a-message-for-kids-it-s-ok-to-not-be-ok

Walker, T. (2020). Social-emotional learning should be a priority during COVID-19 crisis. Retrieved from: http://neatoday.org/2020/04/15/social-emotional-learning-during-covid/

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