With US aid money, schools put bigger focus on mental health
CHICAGO (AP) — In Kansas City, Kansas, educators are opening an after-school mental health clinic staffed with school counselors and social workers. Schools in Paterson, New Jersey, have set up social emotional learning teams to identify students dealing with crises. Chicago is staffing up “care teams” with the mission of helping struggling students on its 500-plus campuses.
With a windfall of federal coronavirus relief money at hand, schools across the U.S. are using portions to quickly expand their capacity to address students’ struggles with mental health.
While school districts have broad latitude on how to spend the aid money, the urgency of the problem has been driven home by absenteeism, behavioral issues, and quieter signs of distress as many students have returned to school buildings this fall for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
For some school systems, the money has boosted long-standing work to help students cope with trauma. Others have launched new efforts to screen, counsel and treat students. All told, the investments put public schools more than ever at the center of efforts to attend to students’ overall well-being.
“In the last recession, with the last big chunk of recovery money, this conversation wasn’t happening,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, the assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. “Now, the tone across the country is very focused on the well-being of students.”
Last month, three major pediatric groups said the state of children’s mental health should be considered a national emergency. The U.S. Education Department has pointed to the distribution of the relief money as an opportunity to rethink how schools provide mental health support. Mental well-being, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said, needs to be the foundation for the recovery from the pandemic.
The pandemic relief to schools totals $190 billion, more than four times the amount the Education Department typically spends on K-12 schools annually. Mental health investments have gone into staff training, wellness screenings and curriculum dedicated to social-emotional learning.
Still, questions remain over how schools will find ways to make the benefits last beyond the one-time infusion of money, handle privacy concerns, and track the effectiveness of their efforts. The implementation worries Katie Dockweiler, a school psychologist in Nevada who sits on the state board of education.
“Not all programs are created equal,” she said. “It really comes down to how it’s implemented, school by school. And there’s great variability there.”
She said districts should develop ways of tracking the impact on students: “Otherwise, we’re just throwing our money away.”
At the top of the list for many districts has been hiring new mental health specialists. When the National Association of School Psychologists surveyed members this fall, more than half of respondents said their districts intended to add social workers, psychologists, or counselors, according to policy director Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach.
With $9.5 million from federal relief funding and outside grant money, Paterson schools added five behavioral analysts, two substance abuse coordinators, and the teams to spot students going through crises.
In Paterson, one of the lowest-income parts of New Jersey, many of the 25,000 students faced food insecurity before the pandemic and struggled after family members lost jobs, Superintendent Eileen Shafer said.
“We wanted to make sure before we try to teach anything new, that we’re able to deal with where our children are right now based on what they’ve been through,” she said.
In rural Ellicottville, New York, where school psychologist Joe Prior is seeing more anxiety and a “significant increase” in panic attacks, the district wants to use rescue funds to hire a counselor to connect students with psychological help. But the position remains unfilled, as few expressed interest.
“I have more students just looking me in the eye and saying ‘I’m completely overwhelmed and I’m not sure how to handle it,’” Ellicottville high school principal Erich Ploetz said.
It’s not the only district where ambitions for hiring have outstripped the number of available professionals. Some districts have turned to outside vendors to help fill mental health positions, while others are training existing staff.
The Kansas City, Kansas, school system is using some of the $918,000 in relief money dedicated to mental health to pay social workers and counselors already on staff to work at the new after-school clinic. The district also has added staff and mental health screenings.