Omaha, Nebraska public schools are employing $460,000 in federal funding allocated for COVID-19 relief to invest in social emotional learning (SEL) throughout the district, a practice that is popping up across the state and the country, Parents Defending Education found.
"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," the Omaha World-Herald reported earlier this month.
"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."
The move coincides with growing nationwide concerns that COVID-19 educational policies hindered the social and emotional wellbeing of students, concerns that sparked widespread parental outrage.
Social emotional learning has come under fire, and Parents Defending Education, a parents rights advocacy group, said while the term sounds innocuous, it has recently morphed into "Transformative SEL," which it said is "basically race and gender ideology embedded into what had previously been neutral student competencies."
"SEL effectively asks teachers to act as therapists." Parents Defending Education said on its website. "Trained only with pop-psychology and one day professional development sessions, it encourages them to probe into students’ psyches, to uncover and address 'trauma.' There is a reason why medical ethics prohibits the practice of therapy by unlicensed and untrained individuals."
The COVID money has been used to implement the Second Step curriculum in all K-6 schools, the Omaha World-Herald reported. Second Step states on its website that it is "committed to addressing racial injustice," and provides resources to teachers to discuss "racial identity" in their classrooms.
Parents Defending Education Director of Outreach Erika Sanzi said the report exposed another example of "anti-parent policies."
"Omaha is just another example of how pervasive these anti-parent policies and practices have become—it is a myth to believe that only left-wing places are driving a wedge between parent and child," Sanzi said in a statement. "They call it social justice but in reality, it is ideological indoctrination in publicly funded schools."
The World-Herald's report claimed that approximately one-third of school districts have recognized the crisis by earmarking COVID relief funds for damage control.
"About one-third of school districts in the U.S. have earmarked COVID money for social and emotional learning," Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) nonprofit spokeswoman Justina Schlund said, according to the source.
According to CASEL, social emotional learning strives to help students "acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions."
"We strive to identify and contribute to the types of educational experiences that foster personal and collective growth and well-being, especially for those our society has long underserved," its website reads.
Parents Defending Education has warned that CASEL has fully embraced "Transformative SEL." A 2020 "Roadmap for Reopening Schools" on the organization's website promotes implementing "anti-racist practices" and "equity-focused SEL." CASEL also published a video in 2020 titled "SEL as a Lever for Equity and Social Justice."
"One week might focus on being a good listener, and the next week they will learn what it means to be kind," Nebraska's Creighton Community Public Schools superintendent Josh Weber said, according to the Omaha World-Herald. "I hope it is going to be a really positive program for us."
"Since COVID happened, we have really decided to take off with this… 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," he added.
A recent survey from the Institute of Education Sciences found that a startling 70% of U.S. public schools experienced increases in students seeking mental health services since the dawn of the pandemic.
When reached out to for comment, Weber reiterated the same concern for his district.
"While we were fortunate in Nebraska to return to in-person learning much sooner than a lot of other states, we did still see an impact, especially at younger grade levels.
"We have always provided social emotional learning (SEL) opportunities for our students, but we have turned a lot more of our attention and resources to further focus on these areas. We have utilized district resources along with COVID relief (ESSER) money," he told Fox News Digital.
Weber added that his district has purchased the Second Step social emotional learning curriculum for students aged kindergarten through sixth grade and said they are spearheading efforts to implement a "research-based" Social Emotional Behavioral Learning (SEBL) District Plan.