The Peoria Unified School District

The Peoria Unified School District is making strides in helping support students’ mental health and learning losses.

COVID-19 has taken a significant toll on the mental health and academic achievement of kindergarten to 12th grade students nationwide.

School districts across America adapted and overcame various challenges caused by the pandemic in different ways. The Peoria Unified School District is using a new learning system and increased support for students to overcome the challenges COVID-19 imposed on its students. 

Emily Dunsey, PUSD communications manager, said because most K-12 students returned to in-person instruction after virtually learning for most of the pandemic, the staff has been working hard to get students back on track academically. 

“Our staff has been diligently working with students every day to close any gaps from interrupted learning across all grade levels,” Dunsey said. 

“We are confident that our students will be prepared for whatever their future holds based on the experiences they had in our district. Students now have enhanced technology skills and bolstered resiliency that are among some of the skills gained in the pandemic.”

In addition to the increased support and skills gained thanks to the pandemic, PUSD has adopted the Multi-Tiered System of Supports. The Multi-Tiered System of Supports, or MTSS, is meant to help students learn and evaluate where they may need additional support whether that’s in academics or mental health. 

The MTSS is divided into layers. When a teacher explains a concept, students who get it may move on to the next level. If there are students struggling, they receive additional support and resources to help them understand.

If the students who received additional help are still struggling, they receive yet another layer of support that focuses on the nonacademic factors that may be preventing the students from grasping the concept.

“The system also takes into account behavior and any unique needs that may be standing in the way of student success,” Dunsey said. 

Despite the MTSS considering the nonacademic factors that may be contributing to the learning loss of students, PUSD remains focused on closing the academic gaps caused by COVID-19. A report from the U.S. Department of Education said the learning loss isn’t the only thing students have suffered from during the pandemic. 

“More than a year of staggering loss, grief, isolation, and uncertainty has taken a toll on many students’ mental health, compounding the challenges students face in the classroom, whether online or in-person,” according to the report.  

Parents, administrators and educators across the country continue to recognize the social and emotional well-being of their students as a major challenge.

Kristin Fray, the parent of a PUSD fourth grader, eighth grader and high school junior, said her students are “more stressed and anxious during COVID than ever before.”

While Fray’s students didn’t struggle too much academically, the stress and anxiety of her students, as well as other K-12 students in the district, should be addressed.

PUSD hired social workers and offers a student support hotline, which is a big step toward meeting the social and emotional needs of its students, but it’s still taking an academics-first approach with the Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

Even though PUSD is focused on the learning loss of students, Fray said the district is beginning to offer better support for students’ mental health. 

“I feel the school district is making a good start to support mental health for students,” Fray said. “I love that they have hired social workers, and they have a student support line for the district. In primary grades, teachers are intentional about checking in with the emotions of each student and using ‘feeling’ words.”