Two years ago, I had the distinct honor of facilitating a conversation with Lorena Sanabria, a student who was present during the 2017 Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., at a national education conference. As we sat together on stage, Lorena, who was 17 years old at the time but wise far beyond her years, shared that one of the hardest things after the tragedy was the pressure to go “back to normal.” Within weeks of a shooting that killed 17 people, well-meaning teachers and parents were encouraging Lorena and her peers to reclaim their old lives. But, as she shared, “We were trying to tell them that normal will never be ‘normal’ again.”
Lorena’s words struck a chord with me that day, and her story has stayed with me since. I’ve recalled it again and again in recent weeks as governors, mayors and superintendents discuss plans to reopen schools and get “back to normal” in the fall.
While their optimism is warranted after a banner month for COVID-19 recovery milestones, an even cursory glance at children’s mental health data makes clear that truly going “back to normal” is an impossibility this fall.
Children’s hospitalizations for mental health-related issues rose by more than a quarter in 2020, and more than half of 11- to 17-year-olds reported having regular thoughts of suicide or self-harm. The demand for children’s mental health services has become so great that it is pushing many providers to a breaking point, even prompting Children’s Hospital Colorado to declare a pediatric mental health state of emergency last month.
For schools, seeking a return to normalcy is only natural, but it may actually be counterproductive. Students coming back through our doors in the fall will be carrying the stress, anxiety and trauma of the past year. As Lorena shared in 2019, and as I have seen over the past decade consulting with schools on health and safety-related issues, reinforcing the idea of normalcy dismisses how abnormal things may feel for them.
So, what’s the alternative to getting back to normal? Ultimately, it’s being comfortable with another abnormal school year—even if that’s the last thing students, educators and parents want. And it’s building systems that ensure no students fall through the cracks and escalate to violence or self-harm.