Pandemic learning gap: The mental toll on students

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — There’s been an infusion of money into our schools to help teachers close the learning gap. It’s measured by where students actually are right now, compared to where they should be, academically. Mental health is complicating the work teachers are trying to do to close the gap.


Channel 9 Eyewitness News spent hours with educators, administrators and parents in Seminole County to find out how they’re juggling the balance of closing the learning gap, while also providing students with the mental health services they need to improve their academic strides.

The lessons look different in Steve Place’s math class at Lake Howell High School. Students are using a program called “Dreambox.” It’s individualized learning, allowing students to review material they may not remember, but are required to know to move forward in a new lesson.

Read: The push to close the pandemic learning gap

“If a kid really needs to focus more on a particular piece, they can go to DreamBox, while we can work with other kids more. So, one on one. Having additional resources at hand allows us to really fulfill what each individual student needs in the classroom to be successful,” Place told Channel 9 investigative anchor Daralene Jones during a visit to Lake Howell High School.

Part of that success for some students, this year, comes with another layer of required support. Jones asked about the role mental health is having on students who are behind.

“It literally halts their progress and in a very unique way we’ve seen it to where it’s not just with their academic performance. We’ve seen declines in almost every facet of a student’s life,” Social Worker Specialist Aja Smith said.

Smith said that in Seminole County social workers are collaborating with teachers. Together, they determine which direct services students need to improve mental health, which in turn should help enhance their academic performance.

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“We’re in the classrooms, we’re observing. We are getting reports from families to reports from teachers. We also receive quantitative data. So, we’re reviewing the attendance records. We’re reviewing discipline data to see trends not only with the individual student that may be even across the grade level, a classroom to see how we’re able to offer direct support to the students,” Smith said.

Right now, each school has an assigned mental health counselor and school social worker at least one day a week and up to five days based on need. All high schools have full-time mental health counselors and school social workers and the same will be true for middle school years year, but only thanks to a federal grant.

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“I feel like until we get a social worker in every individual school to where we’re not carrying a caseload of maybe one, even two schools, I feel like there’s always room to grow. We want to be able to see a kindergarten go all the way to fifth grade and then meet another social worker for middle school sixth through eighth grade and not have a break in that relationship and not have to retrain our staff members,” Smith said.

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