Spike in student suicides forces LA school district to reopen for in-person learning amid rising Covid-19 cases

The Clark County School District in Nevada has seen 18 suicides in nine months since it closed schools in March 2020 as compared to 9 in 2019

                            Spike in student suicides forces LA school district to reopen for in-person learning amid rising Covid-19 cases
(Getty Images)

A surge in student suicides has prompted the fifth-largest school district in the US to start bringing children back to the classroom in a phased manner. The coronavirus pandemic forced the mass closure of schools across the US in March 2020, and school districts have struggled to return to in-person learning. 

The Clark County School District, which serves Las Vegas and other cities in Nevada, and has more than 326,000 students enrolled and has also been fully remote since March 2020. By December 2020, 18 student suicides were recorded in the district. This is double compared to the nine suicides the district saw in 2019.

Top 10 largest school districts in the US (Census.gov)

The Clark County Board of Trustees voted unanimously to start bringing students back for in-person learning. “When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the Covid numbers we need to look at anymore. We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope,” Jesus Jara, the Clark County superintendent told New York Times (NYT). 

Jara told NYT that the youngest student to die was nine years old. Another student left a note that said he had nothing to look forward to. According to available information, while six students died by suicide between March 16 and June 30, 12 students committed suicide between July 1 and December 31. “I feel responsible. They’re all my kids,” says Dr Jara.

District authorities explain that they would allow schools to “bring back high-need students in small groups". By assessing academic data and the social-emotional needs of students, teachers and principals would determine who is in most need of in-person learning, and the process will be invite-only and voluntary. 

The district said it would allow schools to bring back high-need students in small groups (Getty Images)

The decision was made even as Covid-19 cases in the region continue to increase. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak recently announced his plans to extend the current Covid-19 mitigation measures in place for another 30 days. 

To help monitor student’s mental health and well-being, the district had also put in place an early warning system. With the help of that system, students have received 4,359 virtual wellness checks and 1,403 in-person wellness checks. Suicide protocols were initiated 30 times since March 2020, according to a report published by the district. 

Warning system put in place by Clark County to track social and emotional well-being of students
(Clark County School District report)

The analysis also indicates the strain long-term remote learning may be having on students academically, stating that 90.4% of schools have been given more ‘Fs’ in 2020 than the previous year, and 77.2% of schools got more ‘Ds’ than 2019. Among those who got an ‘F’ grade during the fall semester, 11.2% got ‘As’ and ‘Bs’ in the fall of 2019.

Grades obtained by students in Clark County School District (Clark County School District report)

It is hard to decisively link an increase in suicide rates to school closures and data on adolescent suicide rates for 2020 has yet to be compiled. However, a November 2020 study by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that during April and October of 2020, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5-11 years and adolescents aged 12-17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively compared with those in 2019.

Monitoring indicators of children’s mental health, promoting coping and resilience, and expanding access to services to support children’s mental health are critical during the Covid-19 pandemic, advises the agency.

One student from Clark County School District left a note that said he had nothing to look forward to (Getty Images)

Former CDC head Dr Robert Redfield had warned in July 2020 that an increase in suicides would be one of the consequences of extended school closures. “I don’t think as many parents realize what I’ve tried to say… there really have been substantial public health negative consequences for children not being in school...We have seen, obviously, increases in adolescent suicide, adolescent drug use disorder...I anticipate that as schools begin to reopen, more and more parents will begin to opt for the option to have face-to-face learning,” Redfield said during a telebriefing. 

In-person learning is possible, says CDC

Estimates by the CDC reveal that for the fall 2020 school term, there was tremendous geographic and district-to-district variation in the mode of K-12 educational delivery. Among 13,597 of 14,944 districts that provided school reopening plans, 24% were fully online, 51% were using a hybrid model and 17% were fully open for in-person instruction (some districts included options for parents to opt-out); 51% of districts had students participating in school sports programs.

“Closing schools could adversely affect students’ academic progress, mental health, and access to essential services; however, if SARS-CoV-2 rapidly spread in classrooms, opening schools might accelerate community transmission of the virus. There were no simple decisions for parents, teachers, administrators, or public officials,” write authors in a recent opinion piece in JAMA.

According to the analysis, the kind of spread seen in crowded offices and long-term care facilities has not been reported in schools. While school-related cases of Covid-19 have been reported, the CDC notes that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” 

The CDC explains that there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission (Getty Images)

“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools. Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission (such as restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants),” the findings state.

The CDC advises that all recommended mitigation measures in schools must continue: requiring universal face mask use, increasing physical distance by de-densifying classrooms and common areas, using hybrid attendance models when needed to limit the total number of contacts and prevent crowding, increasing room air ventilation, and expanding screening testing to rapidly identify and isolate asymptomatic infected individuals. Staff and students should continue to have options for online education, particularly those at increased risk of severe illness or death if infected with SARS-CoV-2, they add.

“Committing today to policies that prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in communities and schools will help ensure the future social and academic welfare of all students and their education,” concludes the CDC.

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