Should MA schools give students mental health days on top of sick days?

STONEHAM, Mass. — As children return to classrooms during the pandemic, there is new concern about the mental health resources available to students.

“That’s been overlooked. We generally just send the kids to school and we don’t think about the mental health, but the children are under tremendous stress from COVID, from staying home, not seeing their friends,” said Dr. Cheryl Sanders, the clinical director of Sanders Psychotherapy.

Sanders said she gets a dozen therapy referrals a day.

“I’m 75. I have never seen the business this busy,” she said. “In the older days, we couldn’t find people. We couldn’t find people of color because they were afraid to talk, and now everyone’s coming in, people of color, Asians, Hispanics. Everyone is saying, ‘I have to talk.’”

Since therapy has become an urgent necessity for many students, Connecticut lawmakers are considering giving students four mental health days on top of their 10 sick days. But is this a good policy all states should adopt?

“If they’re present physically but they’re not present mentally, we’re not really teaching them anyways,” said Mara Koffmann, tutor and co-founder of Braintrust Tutors. “On the other hand, every single moment that we can have kids in the classroom is precious.”

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Some fear the extent of a student’s mental state won’t be known if they are not in school, especially since districts spend millions on mental health resources. Others argue students get a day off for physical illness and mental health should be no different.

“I think that if kids are given the option to take time off they’re going to take time off,” Koffman said when asked if there’s a chance kids could take advantage of the mental health days.

“I know in Connecticut, it was supposed to be four days they could have the flexibility to take those mental health days. As long as there’s a limitation, how in the world are we really going to differentiate between a mental health day versus a sick day?”

“I would say no, because all the children are very stressed,” Sanders said. “That idea in Connecticut is excellent. Giving them some time off so they won’t feel guilty about not going to school or missing so many days.”

Massachusetts doesn’t have extra mental health days but DESE said it has directed districts to spend a minimum of $4 million of allocated relief on mental health supports and services. That’s at least an extra $10,000 per district for mental health supports counselors or anything else needed.

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