The daily routines of students and parents shifted abruptly and dramatically in late March 2020 when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all K-12 schools statewide to pivot entirely to remote learning and suspended state-mandated standardized testing. 

In the two years since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has become an urgent issue for school-aged children. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, linking it to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral Health, a resource that includes information and guidance to enhance and promote mental health and social and emotional well-being among children and students. 

“Amid the pandemic, we know that our students have experienced so much. We can’t unlock students’ potential unless we also address the needs they bring with them to the classroom each day,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in an October 2021 statement. “As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we are helping to provide students with a strong social and emotional foundation so that they also can excel academically.”

Starting January 2022, students who attend public schools in Illinois between the ages of seven and 17 are allowed five mental health days throughout the school year thanks to Senate Bill 1577, sponsored by Sen. Robert Martwick (D-10th). It was signed by Pritzker last August and went into effect last month. 

Under the new law, students can take up to five mental or behavioral health days each school year without a doctor’s note. The mental health days are classified as excused absences. Students will be allowed to make up their schoolwork during or after their mental health absence.

To take the time off, parents or caregivers need to call their student’s school and let them know that the student is taking a mental health day. According to the bill, after the second missed health day, schools will connect the student to school support personnel such as a school counselor, social worker, psychologist, nurse, and then that person would reach out to the student’s family.

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The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is implementing the new law across the district. CPS has notified principals across Chicago about the new law. The district’s School Code has been amended to include mental and behavioral health reasons as excused absences, CPS press secretary Evan Moore confirmed to the TRiiBE in an email. Here is a link to the CPS policy change. 

“The [CPS] district commits to promote, provide and develop a robust continuum of care through the convergence of policy creation, behavioral health services, multi-tiered systems of social and emotional support, restorative practices and community partnerships to advance a culture of mental health and wellness inequitable ways across the district,” Moore wrote in an email to the TRiiBE on Jan. 28.

It has been challenging to be a student of color because the pandemic hit marginalized communities in Chicago the hardest. A 2020 WBEZ news report found that Black Chicagoans accounted for 40 percent of the more than 3,000 Chicagoans who died from COVID-19. 

For reflection on the new law, the TRiiBE reached out to two Black mental health practitioners in Chicago: Chaka Holley, a licensed clinical social worker, therapist, CEO, and owner of A New Day Mental Wellness Center in South Shore; and Ebony Oliphant, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Clarity Clinic in River North. 

Holley and Oliphant weigh in on the new law and share some of the challenges children have faced while learning remotely. They also provide tips about what caregivers and children can do at home to help cope with their feelings. 

(These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity).

Is this new law a good thing for public school students? Why or why not?

Chaka Holley: Students are addressing grief issues because of the loss of loved ones due to the pandemic. Students are addressing anxiety and fear due to possibly contracting the virus. Students are also experiencing isolation due to social distancing and online learning. Those things can contribute to mental health disorders. We are tribal people; we are meant to commune with one another.


Ebony Oliphant:  There are days that we don’t want to go to work. We’re tired. We’re stressed. Children feel the same things that we do. A lot of times they’re overlooked because they aren’t adults. Adults will make it seem like children don’t have any problems [and] they don’t have many reasons to be stressed. But school is stressful, especially now, with the pandemic happening. Even before the pandemic, it’s always been difficult. There’s no reward for a child going to school every day, besides maybe a certificate saying that they have perfect attendance.

School is an essential foundation for children. It is where they learn critical development and social skills. School is also where they spend the majority of their time. How difficult has attending school been for children during the pandemic?

CH: I’ve heard a lot from clients and friends that their children are struggling with isolation. Kids are used to spending time with [other] kids. They have, for years, had opportunities starting in preschool to be able to have recess and playtime with their peers. Now, that time is stripped away. So for a lot of them, that’s been a huge struggle.

EO:  It has been challenging with the multiple adjustments and the constant changes. We’re going to school. We’re coming back out of school. We’re going to school. We’re coming back out of school — that is a tough adjustment for children.

On the other hand, you have a lot of children who don’t necessarily have the resources, or they don’t have a parent at home [during school hours] or someone who could stay home and help them with the school. That isn’t easy. We’re seeing a lot of grades falling, and we’re seeing a lot of behavioral issues, such as difficulty concentrating and difficulty following directions.

What are some tools that young people — who may not have access to mental health services — use to help navigate their feelings?

CH: Engaging in things that keep them active and that they enjoy. That could be dance, that could be jump rope, that could be just some basic physical exercises — walking, running, jogging, bike riding. Another thing that’s very important for our youth that’s often neglected and can be very frustrating for our caregivers is sleep. 

Children need to make sure that they’re getting enough sleep. The recommended amount is eight to 10 hours of sleep for children and teens, and most of our children are not getting that. If we think about how we feel when we’re not well-rested, we can be very moody. It’s easy for people to have irritability — to be agitated, to be fatigued, and to lack motivation — when they haven’t received enough sleep.

EO: Narrative activities, such as journaling, are good for them. If they have stressful moments, or even if they’re having a good day, it’s good to be able to put those feelings in a safe place so that they can look back and reflect on them. Another thing that I also think is good for young people is artwork, being able to be expressive through arts and crafts. A lot of kids have all kinds of supplies at home, where they can think, and they can draw.

Typically, we tend not to always listen to the needs of young people. So what can adults and caregivers do to ensure that we give the young people in our lives the opportunity to share how they’re feeling? How can we show up for them?

CH: “We need to carve out space within our day-to-day life and ask the questions in ways in which our students will answer. When you ask, ‘’how was your day?’’ They’re going to say, “Fine.’’ That’s just what they’re going to say. They’re not typically going to elaborate. 

But if you ask a child, what was your high for today? What was your low for today? What was something funny that happened to you today? What was something that caused you to feel down today? [When] you ask in these more specific ways, you can get a better understanding of what’s going on with that kid.

EO:  They can also reach out to put the child in mental health treatment if they think it might be a good idea. Nothing has to be seriously wrong for a child to go to therapy. They could need a safe place to talk, especially if they are unwilling to talk to adults. They will likely be more willing to speak to the adults if adults give them the space and let them know they’re there when they’re ready to talk. There shouldn’t be any pushing them to talk; that’s going to have the opposite effect.

Late last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared a mental health crisis in youth. What are some potential long-term effects for children of this generation?

CH:  If you’re not learning how to socialize and interact with other people, then that can have long-term effects. Once things do shift, children could struggle with knowing how to interact with others in appropriate ways — given that they haven’t had to do that — because all of their learning and interaction was online or a more segregated format.

EO:  We’re seeing this with some of the kids back in school. Many of the fights and things happening are because children have not had these types of social interactions in quite some time. They’re not used to interacting with other kids regularly. As they become older, we could expect to see some of these kids have difficulty interacting as adults if more measures aren’t taken. Clinical depression could come from suicidal ideation, isolation, and irritability.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.