With US aid money, schools put bigger focus on mental health

CHICAGO , -- Kansas City educators have opened an after-school mental clinic, staffed by school counselors and social workers. New Jersey schools have created social emotional learning groups to help students in crisis. Chicago has established "care teams" to assist students in crisis on its 500+ campuses.

With US aid money, schools put bigger focus on mental health

CHICAGO , -- Kansas City educators have opened an after-school mental clinic, staffed by school counselors and social workers. New Jersey schools have created social emotional learning groups to help students in crisis. Chicago has established "care teams" to assist students in crisis on its 500+ campuses.

Schools across the U.S. have been able to use a portion of federal coronavirus relief money to expand their ability to help students with mental health issues.

Although school districts can have wide latitude in how they spend aid money, the urgency has been emphasized by absenteism, behavioral problems, and other signs of distressas many of these students returned to school this fall for the first-time since the coronavirus pandemic.

Some school systems have seen an increase in funding for trauma counseling programs. Others have begun new programs to help students. The investments have placed public schools in the forefront of efforts to ensure students' well-being.

Amanda Fitzgerald, assistant director of American School Counselor Association, stated that "In the last recession with the last large chunk of recovery money this conversation wasn’t happening." "Now, the national tone is focused on the well being of students."

Three major pediatric organizations declared that the state of children's psychological healthshould become a national emergency last month. The U.S. Education Department cited the distribution of relief money as an opportunity for schools to rethink their mental health support programs. Miguel Cardona, Education Secretary, stated that mental well-being is essential for the recovery process from the pandemic.

The relief for schools from the pandemic totals $190 Billion. This is more than four times what the Education Department spends annually on K-12 schools. Mental health investments were made in staff training, wellness screenings, and curriculum for social-emotional learning.

There are still questions about how schools will make these benefits last beyond the one time infusion of funds, deal with privacy concerns and track their effectiveness. Katie Dockweiler is a Nevada school psychologist who sits on the state education board.

She said that not all programs are the same. It all comes down to the way it is implemented in each school. There is a lot of variability.

She suggested that districts develop methods to track the impact on students. "We're throwing our money away otherwise."

Many districts rank hiring mental health specialists at the top of their priorities list. Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, policy director at the National Association of School Psychologists, found that more than half of respondents to a survey this fall indicated their intention to hire counselors, psychologists, and social workers in their districts.

Paterson schools received $9.5 million in federal relief funding and grants from outside sources. They added five behavioral analysts and two substance abuse coordinators to their staff.

Superintendent Eileen Shafer stated that Paterson is one of the poorest parts of New Jersey. Many of the 25,000 students in Paterson were faced with food insecurity prior to the pandemic. They also struggled after their family lost their jobs.

She said, "We wanted to be sure that before we try and teach anything new to our children, we're capable of dealing with where they are at the moment based on their past experiences."

The district of Ellicottville in New York is concerned about Joe Prior, a school psychologist, who is experiencing more anxiety and "significant increases" in panic attacks. They want to use rescue money to hire a counselor to help students. The position is still vacant as not many people expressed an interest.

Erich Ploetz, principal of Ellicottville High School said that more students were looking at him in the eye and saying "I'm overwhelmed and I don't know how to deal with it."

This is not the only area where the ambitions to hire exceed the number of professionals available. Some districts are looking for outside help to fill mental health roles, while others train existing staff.

Kansas City's school system has used some of the $918,000 in mental health relief money to pay counselors and social workers already on staff, to fund the new after-school clinic. District staff have been increased and are now offering mental health screenings.

Angela Dunn is the director of the district's suicide prevention and mental health initiatives for 22,000 students. She said that the mental health team has responded twice as fast to student deaths than usual during the period. While a few staff died from COVID-19, she said that many others were overdoses, suicides, and homicides.

Privacy concerns have been raised by the school's investments in student mental healthcare services. Schools are monitoring students' computers for distress signals and administering mental health screenings to all of their students. However, schools have ceased to believe that they are allowed to interfere in any way.

Dunn stated, "We just realized that students are comfortable seeking assistance in a school setting."

Chicago, the third-largest district school system in America, has unveiled a "healing program" for students using $24 Million of its $2.6 Billion stimulus funds.

The district will increase the number of "care teams", which are staff that provide first-line support for students in need, to every campus over three years. The goal is 200 schools by spring.

Angelica Altamirano, high school principal, used some of the funding to create a cozy space with comfortable furniture and an old-fashioned air hockey table. The campus center offers grief support groups for students and teachers who have lost loved ones.

Topeka, Kansas budgeted $100,000 for staff and calming materials for sensory rooms. One of these rooms is Quincy Elementary's. Teachers can refer students to the Roadrunner Room if they become so frustrated that they are unable to sit at their desks, wander down the hall, or even cry. They can sleep in a tent, build a Lego-style puzzle, or play with sand.

Andrea Keck, Dean of Students, has seen the room grow into a place where one student can vent their frustrations.

Keck oversees the area.

Detroit spends $34 million annually on mental health initiatives. This includes screening students and expanding the help of outside mental health providers. It also offers extra support for parents.

An hour-long meditation session was held for parents at a local coffee house on Wednesday. One participant worried that her stress might be affecting her son’s ability to learn.

Sharlonda Buckman (assistant superintendent) said that everyone has been through something. "Part of our recovery must be intentional work in spaces such as this so that we can be there to support our children."

Updated Date: 11 November 2021, 12:26

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