A feared onslaught of self-harm and crisis incidents involving students has not occurred since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the Garden State in March 2020, but more students appear to be showing signs of mental health issues, according to a report released by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

After surveying districts and interviewing two dozen school officials, the NJSBA has concluded that students "have fared relatively well," considering the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, including changes to students' daily routine and the potential loss of family members to the virus.

In NJSBA's survey of 264 superintendents, business administrators and board of education members, 12% cited evidence of "more serious crises, such as self-harm, threats of self-harm, or hospitalizations." About a third said students are coping well, in general, and about 48% said that students are more anxious and depressed, but they're not seeing evidence of more students in crisis.

"There was some fear at the beginning that there was going to be a real wave of very serious mental health crises, and we are glad that has not happened, of course," said Janet Bamford, NJSBA's chief public affairs officer.

Bamford said districts, for the most part, have ramped up the mental health services they offer to students, even in a remote-learning world.

The NJSBA report mentions a "virtual calming corner" for students in Somerville. It also recounts the story out of Atlantic Highlands — a boy was spotted hiding under his blanket during a remote learning day, so a licensed school social worker was put to work and quickly learned what other challenges the kid had been dealing with, and how to improve his frame of mind.

The association's report comes with a handful of recommendations for state leaders, including the development of a long-term recovery plan to help students make up for any delays in learning progression caused by the disruptive events of the past year.

The association is urging state officials to request a postponement of national achievement tests, "which can be stressful to students." Gov. Phil Murphy in January once again waived the high-school graduation proficiency test requirement.

"With a large percentage of districts either entirely, or significantly, educating students through remote learning, administering tests would also create a significant drain on resources better spent on providing mental health services for students and maintaining a high-quality education program," the report says.

The report also calls for more school aid from state and nation. A COVID relief package signed in December by then-President Donald Trump would provide billions to public education, the report notes, but more assistance is needed to help districts face the pandemic's obstacles.

"As proposed, President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package would provide badly needed funds to N.J. governments and schools," the report says.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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