AUSTIN (KXAN) — Schools can become “on the front edge of change” amid mental health challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a panel at SXSW EDU.

Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary under President Obama, and Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver discussed how to address unresolved trauma in schools during the Wednesday morning session.

The discussion titled ‘United States of Trauma’ also looked at how to help both students and teachers navigate mental illness.

Shriver said many people who trained as teachers, including himself, were not taught about children’s social and emotional needs. But he indicated he is positive about the future, saying schools can become “extraordinarily powerful places.”

“If we have the strength to be honest with each other about how hard it’s been and how much pain has been revealed and how much pain will persist if we don’t change, then schools can become places that are very much on the front edge of the change; we all need to fight some of these long-term problems,” he said.

Duncan, who shared he is grieving for a friend who recently died from COVID-19, challenged schools to become “social safety nets” to help members of the community with their mental health.

“Schools are social safety nets,” he said. “And folks might think that’s too much to ask of schools, and it’s a lot, but I can’t think of a better place to be a social safety net than our 100,000 schools in every neighborhood across the country.”

According to the panel, a majority of children and teachers suffered from unaddressed trauma even before the pandemic. The ensuing increase in trauma has led to an increase in the high school dropout rate, it said, and the rate of teachers quitting their jobs.

“We’re in the midst of a national traumatic event that will require, in my view, a comprehensive strategy to respond,” Shriver said.

Duncan agreed, saying while the conversation is “welcome” and “needed,” “it’s really all about action.”

However, despite the difficult subject both men expressed hope for the future. In a message to people who may be struggling with trauma, Shriver said “you are not struggling alone.”

“Kids, your teachers do care. We don’t always show it as best we should, but your teachers do care,” he added.