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“Back to school” brings a focus on mental health

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For fourth-grader Leah Rainey, the school day now begins with what her teacher calls an "emotional check-in." "It's great to see you. How are you feeling?" chirps a cheery voice on her laptop screen. It asks her to click an emoji matching her state of mind: Happy. Sad. Worried. Angry. Frustrated. Calm. Silly. Tired. Depending on the answer, Leah, 9, gets advice on managing her mood and a few more questions: Have you eaten breakfast? Are you hurt or sick? Is everything OK at home? Is someone at school being unkind? Today, Leah chooses "silly," but says she struggled with sadness during distance learning. At Lakewood Elementary School, all 420 students will start their days the same way this year. The rural Kentucky school is one of thousands across the country using the technology to screen students' state of mind and alert teachers to anyone struggling. In some ways, the return to school this fall will restore a degree of pre-pandemic normalcy: Most districts have lifted mask mandates, dropped COVID vaccine requirements and rules on social distancing and quarantines. But many of the pandemic's longer-lasting impacts remain a troubling reality for schools. Among them: the harmful effects of isolation and remote learning on children's emotional well-being.

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