Nebraska schools using federal COVID-19 relief to invest in social emotional learning

Matt Blomstedt, who has served as Nebraska’s education commissioner since 2014, announced Friday that he is retiring from the position.

OMAHA — Morning routines are looking a little different this fall in a growing number of Nebraska classrooms.

In addition to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and taking attendance, teachers are facilitating things such as mood check-ins and listening sessions to gauge how students are doing.

Teacher Tessandra Toliver watches as eighth grader Byron Torres Lopez does a mood check-in during gym class at Bryan Middle School in Omaha.

The practices are part of social and emotional learning, an area of curriculum that many districts across the state are investing in this year with the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief money.

The pandemic’s impact has taken a toll on students in particular, contributing to an increase in mental health problems since 2020, according to statewide and national data. Nebraska districts, and schools across the U.S., are using the federal money to hire more mental health specialists, roll out new coping tools and expand social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum, which prioritizes emotional health.

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About one-third of school districts in the U.S. have earmarked COVID-19 money for social and emotional learning, said Justina Schlund, spokeswoman for Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a national nonprofit that has worked for more than two decades to spread and develop social and emotional learning practice.

The organization defines social and emotional learning as the process through which youths acquire the skills to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, show empathy for others, establish supportive relationships and make responsible, caring decisions.

In Nebraska, the money has allowed Creighton Community Public Schools to heavily invest in social and emotional learning for the first time, Superintendent Josh Weber said.

The northeast Nebraska district is using about $20,000 to $25,000 for social and emotional learning programs, including Second Step — a program used by multiple districts — for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Students meet with their school counselor weekly to go through lessons.

“One week might focus on being a good listener, and the next week they will learn what it means to be kind,” Weber said. “I hope it is going to be a really positive program for us.”

The district also is starting a new mental health program, which includes reinforcing school expectations, tiered support for challenges, and learning about social skills. Weber said this is the first year a licensed mental health practitioner will be available twice a week.

“Since COVID happened, we have really decided to take off with this,” Weber said. “Before COVID, students were still doing social emotional learning, but COVID has really shone a light on some mental health issues and pushed us to address them.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 70% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services at school, according to a survey that the National Center for Education Statistics published in May.

About 76% reported an increase in staff voicing concerns about their students exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety and trauma.

Nebraska mental health providers reported in a 2021 survey that cases of pediatric anxiety, depression and family stress have increased both in quantity and severity during the pandemic, according to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

More than 50% of children surveyed in a separate 2021 UNMC statewide assessment had received mental or behavioral health services during the pandemic.


Teacher Tessandra Toliver helped a student do a mood check-in during gym class at Bryan Middle School in Omaha in mid-September. The check-in was part of the school’s social and emotional learning program.

While social and emotional learning doesn’t replace the need for mental health services, it can prevent risks and promote mental wellness, Schlund said.

“It’s preventative and helps reduce risks of mental health challenges, because it develops social-emotional skills that help students be able to process different emotions and cope with challenges,” Schlund said. “Research shows when they have relationships and strong SEL skills, it can help protect against mental health risks.”

Social and emotional learning has been around for decades, Schlund said, and was even on the rise before the pandemic began. About 95% of school districts in the U.S. have some type of social and emotional learning, according to a 2021 CASEL survey.

But the pandemic revealed the mental wellness need among students and teachers, Schlund said. Earlier this year, when 100 school district leaders across the country were asked what their main priorities are, the top response included social and emotional learning.

“It’s safe to say it is a really huge focus across the nation,” Schlund said.

This year, the Ralston school district is checking in on students daily through morning meetings, said Cecilia Wilken, assistant superintendent for learning.

The meetings take place in every prekindergarten through sixth grade classroom. Each one consists of a greeting to students, welcoming them to class, a sharing activity and an activity focused on a specific behavior or academic area. A morning message concludes the meetings, where teachers write to students what is on the schedule for the day.

“It’s the idea of taking time to build community and knowing each other,” Wilken said. “It’s about how students interact with each other and they get to learn about each other.”

Ralston’s chunk of federal pandemic relief money also paid for new social and emotional learning curriculum for students prekindergarten through sixth grade this year. Wilken said it focuses on self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness.

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The district has also been using a different curriculum for grades 7-12 that includes the topics of gratitude, courage, compassion and forgiveness.

Wilken said while Ralston has been incorporating a variety of other social and emotional curriculum throughout the past several years, recently purchased programs are focused on helping students transition into a more post-pandemic world.

“Our students have been through a lot,” Wilken said. “We are making sure we have those social and emotional supports in place, and we are helping students learn those life skills. When we think about helping students as we find our new normal, we try to give them opportunities to help them grow.”

The Palmyra school district in southeastern Nebraska plans to purchase a $4,200 universal social emotional learning screener, which identifies students who may need advanced support.

“It gives you data to say ‘Hey, make sure we are following up with this kid’ or ‘We need to create a safety plan for this kid,’” said Superintendent Michael Hart. “It’s another instrument to intervene hopefully as proactively as possible.”

The Omaha school district is investing $460,000 from its federal money to implement more social and emotional learning districtwide.

The money has paid for the Second Step curriculum to be incorporated into all K-8 schools. The district also purchased training from the Yale Center for Intelligence for 14 schools. OPS has been able to host parenting workshops for families.

OPS schools are also incorporating SEL into daily activities. For example, Bryan Middle School hands out “Bear Bucks” to get rewards for positive behavior. The school has already handed out 11,000 Bear Bucks this year.

The district has future plans to incorporate more social emotional learning. Officials are currently searching for proposals from companies who can provide online emotional regulation and mindset tools that could be used in all grade levels.

Firms have until Oct. 24 to submit their proposals for the materials, according to the OPS website.


Lorrie Foley hands out “Bear Bucks” to students during science class at Omaha’s Bryan Middle School. The bucks reward students for positive behavior.

Josie McDonnell, social emotional learning supervisor for OPS, said while the district has been prioritizing social and emotional learning for decades, she thinks the increased focus on SEL is because of how the pandemic has affected students’ and teachers’ well-being.

“It’s a new buzzword, right? It seems like as we are still in a pandemic, we’re really focusing on students’ and educators’ mental health and wellness,” McDonnell said. “And I think that in schools, it’s really important that we teach (SEL) because they are lifelong skills that we use every single day.”

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