Mental health days are becoming increasingly common as school districts across the country are getting creative about finding ways to give educators and students much-needed time to relax and recharge.
According to Burbio, a tracker of school district websites, there have been more than 3,140 school closures for student and teacher mental health days.
Recently, some districts extended the Thanksgiving holiday break. Others worked mental health days into the schedule earlier while others have added mental health days to the calendar for December.
Why Mental Health Days at Schools
Brevard Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in Florida, recently used two unused “hurricane days” to extend the Thanksgiving break.
“We're hearing from teachers and principals and all of our staff that it's been a really difficult year,” says Misty Belford, School Board Chair for Brevard Public Schools. “They're feeling much more burnt out than they typically would at this time of year. We're seeing escalating behaviors in students. And so it just seemed to make sense to give everybody that downtime.”
Staffing challenges that have plagued schools across the nation also played a role. “Shortages are definitely contributing to the burnout,” Belford says.
The Port Huron Area School District in Michigan recently designated December 10 as a mental health day for similar reasons.
“Our Superintendent has been conducting listening sessions with all staff and students, and after hearing from them, he felt strongly about the need to provide a mental health day,” says Keely Baribeau, director of community relations at Port Huron Schools. “Teachers are still balancing supporting students who are in their classrooms daily while simultaneously supporting students who are quarantined or isolated due to COVID.”
These stressors extend to students as well. “Students are still working on building stamina to attend school all day, five days a week, and fill the gaps of information they missed over the last year-and-a-half when their instruction was impacted by virtual and hybrid learning,” Baribeau says.
Making The Time Off Work
When Brevard Public Schools began exploring the possibility of extending the Thanksgiving break, Belford’s first concern was childcare for those who would need it. “I immediately reached out to our Parks and Rec department and said, ‘Hey, if this were to come to fruition, would you guys be able to [set] up camps?’ which they typically do during school breaks for that Monday and Tuesday, and they very graciously agreed to do so.’”
However, providing an alternative childcare option was only one of the logistical challenges. Arrangements had to be made with food service staff to provide families who rely on school meals with extra food on the Friday before the break. Dual-enrollment students who generally take a bus from their high school to college classes needed help arranging transportation. Sports events had also been scheduled for the mental health days and the district let the athletic directors at each school decide whether to postpone or continue with those.
Fortunately, these challenges are ones that Belford says administrators in her district and elsewhere are fairly familiar with because of their long experience dealing with weather events of one kind or another. “We have a lot of the things in mind that need to be considered,” she says.
A Mental Health Day or Two Goes A Long Way
While a day or two off can’t eliminate all the stressors of pandemic teaching and learning, a brief break can help. The first day back from the extended Thanksgiving break, Belford already noticed a difference in the district office. “Everyone looks so much more relaxed than before the break,” she says. “Our administrators, our district staff, our faculty and staff at the schools, our bus drivers, our custodial staff, you name it, they were all ready for a break. And students were very appreciative as well.”
Port Huron Area School district has not yet held its Mental Health Day but its addition to the calendar has been greeted with enthusiasm. “Staff, students, and families have been very grateful for the day to get caught up, rest, and spend time with their families,” Baribeau says.