Back to school: Supporting well-being of students, parents, educators amid COVID-19 pandemic

UCLA partnership with L.A. County Department of Mental Health addresses growing needs through innovative programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on students, families and educators who have had to adapt to more than a year of change and uncertainty.

Early on, leaders in the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Los Angeles Unified School District and Department of Mental Health, prioritized supporting teachers and finding ways to stay connected to families. Partnering with UCLA led to the creation of innovative well-being programming to help address the needs of the community.

This partnership, the Los Angeles County DMH + UCLA Public Partnership for Wellbeing, integrates the expertise and innovation of programs across UCLA with the Department of Mental Health and other county agencies.

One of the largest initiatives supported by the partnership is the Community Schools Initiative (CSI), a community school model that creates lasting connections between schools, the surrounding community and families to support students.

CSI highlights areas of need, with a focus on racial equity and community engagement, so students are healthy and prepared for life after high school. It has been implemented at both Los Angeles County Office of Education and Los Angeles Unified School District schools.

“Schools are a gathering place. Students, parents, teachers, counselors, and local providers can come together to impact future generations by creating safety, building trust, addressing barriers and providing resources.” said Kanchana Tate, LCSW, mental health clinical program manager, L.A. County Department of Mental Health-Prevention Administration.

DMH + UCLA online learning center

When learning went online in March 2020, Los Angeles County Office of Education and Los Angeles Unified School District schools turned to the DMH + UCLA Wellbeing for LA Online Learning Center to support their CSI programming. As a fully independent online learning platform which uses aritifical intelligence to support personalized learning, the Learning Center was able to connect teachers, administrators and other school staff with trainings, resources, explainer videos and interactive learning communities that are responsive to individual users and emerging community needs.

Among the achievements of the DMH + UCLA partnership:

“Educators Overcoming Under Stress,” a series released through the Learning Centerand hosted by the UCLA Division of Population Behavioral Health’s Prevention Center of Excellence (COE) Team, has provided a forum for educators across Los Angeles County.

COE Trainer and Curriculum Developer Domenique Harrison, MA, MPH, and district leaders and administrators have engaged in recorded online discussions outlining plans for reopening.

UCLA faculty, including Tyrone Howard, PhD, weighed in on the state of racial equity in schools, and experts in mental health and education offered tips on everything from student anxiety to educator well-being.

Additionally, trainings and professional development sessions from the DMH + UCLA Public Partnership for Wellbeing team implemented on the Learning Center has drawn more than 17,000 participants since its launch. Evaluation showed educators benefited not only from the subject material covered, but appreciated having a welcoming and supportive space focused on strengths and self-compassion.

Over the many months of the pandemic, trainings for educators have proven to be a healing dialogue between school personnel and COE experts. Educators and school counselors can also connect through the Learning Center using learning communities, which provide a platform for information sharing, personal and professional development and a sense of collective support.

Resources for school reopening

Another component of the partnership’s efforts with L.A. County schools has been the work done by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families from the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies.

To improve student well-being, the partnership recognized they would first have to provide support to educators and other school staff so that they could manage their own well-being, so they launched a range of tools. The partnership has created a specialized portal for the L.A. County workforce that provides specialized tools to address stressors related to COVID-19, such as working within systems that perpetuate racial inequities.

“Educators are constantly being asked to do more, and if we don’t take the time to support their well-being, we’ll see increased levels of burnout. The UCLA Pritzker Center for Children and Families and the Department of Mental Health worked together to develop resources that will help teachers take care of themselves as they continue to serve our communities selflessly,” said Dr. Howard, director of the Pritzker Center.

Addressing systemic racism

The Pritzker Center also worked with school staff to address the needs of students and families who were navigating remote learning, while continuing to experience systemic barriers and difficulties.

Through online and virtual live trainings, the Center provided school staff with an understanding of the impact systemic racism has had on the mental health of students. School staff received tools to address systemic inequities in their school community and to remove barriers to student well-being and success.

We have an opportunity to engage school leaders in dismantling the persistent racist structures inherent in our systems. Teachers, administrators and all school staff can help target inequities and improve outcomes for marginalized students and their families,” said Dr. Howard.

As schools reopen, the DMH + UCLA Public Partnership for Wellbeing will continue to support teachers and school staff in creating trauma-informed and equitable environments.

A mobile application, designed to support the well-being of students, parents and educators through customized online and in-person resources, local services, screening tools and more will be available to schools this year.

Additionally, the Pritzker Center has developed anytime sessions, a series of recorded trainings that will be available for educators to access at their convenience through a specialized portal. A Toolkit for Teachers, created by experts in the field offering quick tips for creating nurturing and effective school environments, has been launched by the partnership.

This last year highlighted the many ways in which educators, students and their families need additional support. By integrating innovative programs such as CSI, the Wellbeing for LA Learning Center, the Prevention Center of Excellence, and the UCLA Pritzker Center for Children and Families, the DMH + UCLA Public Partnership for Wellbeing created a strong infrastructure that not only addresses the undeniable challenges educators, students and families faced during the pandemic, but also presents solutions and resources that can help mitigate those challenges.

Learn more about the Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.