In Kansas City, Kansas, educators open an after-school mental health clinic staffed with school counselors and social workers. Schools in Paterson, New Jersey have set up socio-emotional learning teams to identify students dealing with crisis. Chicago sets up “mentoring teams” with a mission to help students in difficulty on its 500+ campuses.
With a stroke of luck in federal coronavirus relief funds, schools in the United States are using parts to quickly expand their capacity to deal with students’ mental health issues.
While school districts have plenty of leeway in using the aid funds, the urgency of the problem has been made clear by absenteeism, behavioral issues and quieter signs of distress as many students hit for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic this fall.
In some school systems, the money has fueled longstanding trauma-coping work. Others have made new efforts to screen, counsel, and treat students. All in all, investment has put public schools at the center of efforts for the general welfare of students more than ever.
“In the last recession, with the last big chunk of recovery money, that conversation didn’t take place,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. “Now the tone is very much geared towards the well-being of the students across the country.”
Last month, three major pediatric groups said the state of children’s mental health should be considered a national emergency. The US Department of Education has pointed out aid distribution to rethink how schools provide psychological support. Mental wellbeing, said Education Minister Miguel Cardona, must be the foundation for recovery from the pandemic.
Pandemic aid to schools is $ 190 billion, more than four times the amount the Department of Education typically spends annually on K-12 schools. Investments in mental health have gone into employee training, wellness screenings and curricula for social-emotional learning.
Questions remain, however, as to how schools will find ways to reap the benefits beyond the one-time cash injection, address privacy concerns, and track the effectiveness of their efforts. The implementation worries Katie Dockweiler, a Nevada school psychologist who sits on the state education committee.
“Not all programs are created equal,” she said. “It really depends on how it is implemented, school by school. And there is a lot of variability.”
She said the districts should develop ways to track the impact on students: “Otherwise we’ll just throw our money away.”
At the top of the list for many districts is the recruitment of new mental health specialists. When the National Association of School Psychologists surveyed members this fall, more than half of those polled said their districts intend to add social workers, psychologists or counselors, according to policy director Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach.
With $ 9.5 million in federal aid and outside grants, the Paterson Schools added five behavioral analysts, two substance abuse coordinators, and the teams to identify students in crisis situations.
In Paterson, one of the lowest-income parts of New Jersey, many of the 25,000 college students faced food insecurity prior to the pandemic and struggled after family members lost their jobs, Superintendent Eileen Shafer said.
“Before we tried to teach anything new, we wanted to make sure we were able to navigate where our children are based on what they’ve been through,” she said.
In rural Ellicottville, New York, where school psychologist Joe Prior sees more anxiety and a “marked increase” in panic attacks, the district plans to hire a life-saving agent to connect students with psychological help. But the position remains vacant as only a few have expressed interest.
“I have more students who just look into my eyes and say, ‘I’m completely overwhelmed and don’t know how to deal with it,'” said Erich Ploetz, headmaster of Ellicottville High School.
It’s not the only district where hiring ambitions have exceeded the number of skilled workers available. Some districts have turned to outside providers to fill mental health positions while others are training existing staff.
The Kansas City, Kansas school system is using a portion of the $ 918,000 mental health grant to pay for social workers and counselors who are already on the job at the new afternoon clinic. The district has also added staff and mental health exams.
Angela Dunn, who leads mental health and suicide prevention initiatives for the 22,000 student district, said the mental health team has responded to 27 student deaths and 16 employee deaths since the pandemic began, double the number over that period typical. She said a handful of employees died from COVID-19, but many of the others were murders, suicides and overdoses.
Schools’ investments in student mental health services have raised some privacy concerns, particularly where schools are now monitoring student computers for distress signals or performing mental health tests on all students. But the notion that it’s not where schools can get involved at all has been forgotten.
“We just realized that students like to go to school to seek help,” said Dunn.
Chicago, the country’s third largest school district, unveiled a “cure plan” for high school students using $ 24 million of its $ 2.6 billion in stimulus funds.
Over the course of three years, the district will expand “mentoring teams” – construction personnel who serve as the first point of contact for students in difficulty – to each campus. 200 schools are to be reached by spring.
The headmistress Angélica Altamirano used some of these funds to open a room that is furnished with comfortable furniture and a used air hockey table. The campus center has already offered mourning groups for deceased students or friends and helped teachers deal with burnout.
In Topeka, Kansas, $ 100,000 was allocated for soothing items and sensory room personnel, including one at the Quincy Elementary. When students are so frustrated that they lay their heads on their desks, wander into the hallway, or cry, teachers can send them to the Roadrunner Room. There they can climb into a tent and snuggle under a weighted blanket, put together a puzzle, play with sand or build with Legos.
The Dean of Studies Andrea Keck observed how the room became a point of contact for a student in order to reduce frustrations.
“She can log it, have her hair pinned up, whatever she needs, and then she can be successful for the rest of the day,” says Keck, who oversees the room.
In Detroit, the district is spending $ 34 million on mental health initiatives, including screening high school students, expanding help from outside mental health providers, and providing additional support for parents.
Last Wednesday, that meant an hour-long meditation session for parents in a local coffee shop. One participant feared that her own stress was affecting her son’s ability to learn.
“As a community, we’ve all been through something,” said Sharlonda Buckman, an assistant superintendent who attended the meeting. “Part of recovery has to be deliberate work in spaces like this so we can be there for our children.”