Tuesday, September 27, 2022

U.S. aid funded schools focusing more on mental health

CHICAGO (AP) – In Kansas City, Kansas, teachers open an out-of-school mental health clinic with school counselors and social workers. Schools in Paterson, New Jersey have created social-emotional learning groups to identify students facing crises. Chicago is recruiting “care teams” with the mission of helping students in need across more than 500 campuses.

With unforeseen federal coronavirus aid money on hand, schools in the U.S. are using rations to quickly expand their capacity to address student mental health problems.

While school districts have wide leeway on how to spend aid money, the urgency of the problem is compounded by truancy, behavioral problems and quieter signs of disaster as many students returned to school buildings this fall for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

In some school systems, money has contributed to an increase in continuous work to help students cope with trauma. Others have begun new efforts to screen, counsel, and treat students. Overall, the investment puts public schools at the center of efforts to ensure the overall well-being of students more than ever.

“During the last recession, when we had the last big amount of money to rebuild, this conversation wasn’t there,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, assistant director of the American Association of School Counselors. “The tone across the country is now very focused on student welfare.”

Last month, three major pediatric groups said the mental health status of children should be treated as a national emergency. The US Department of Education has cited handouts as an opportunity to rethink the way schools provide mental health support. Education Minister Miguel Cardona said mental well-being should be the foundation for recovery from the pandemic.

Aid to schools in the pandemic is $ 190 billion, more than four times the amount the Department of Education normally spends on K-12 schools annually. Mental health investments have been made in staff training, health exams, and training programs dedicated to social-emotional learning.

However, questions remain about how schools will find ways to extend benefits beyond a one-time investment, address privacy concerns, and track the effectiveness of their efforts. The implementation worries Katie Dockweiler, a Nevada-based school psychologist and member of the state board of education.

“Not all programs are created equal,” she said. “It really comes down to how it’s done, school by school. And there is a lot of variation. ”

She said districts should develop ways to track student exposure: “Otherwise, we’re just throwing our money away.”

At the top of the list for many counties was the recruitment of new mental health professionals. When the National Association of School Psychologists surveyed members this fall, more than half of respondents said their districts intend to add social workers, psychologists or counselors, according to political director Kelly Weylankourt Strobach.

After receiving $ 9.5 million in federal aid funding and external grants, Paterson Schools added five behavioral analysts, two substance abuse coordinators, and a team to identify students in crisis.

In Paterson, one of New Jersey’s lowest-income neighborhoods, many of the 25,000 students faced food insecurity before the pandemic and struggled after family members lost their jobs, Superintendent Eileen Schafer said.

“We wanted to make sure, before trying to teach something new, that we can deal with where our children are now based on what they have been through,” she said.

In rural Ellicotville, New York, where school psychologist Joe Pryor sees growing anxiety and a “massive increase” in panic attacks, the district wants to use bailout funds to hire a counselor to link students with psychological help. But the position remains unfilled, as few have shown interest.

“A lot of students just look me in the eye and say, ‘I’m completely overwhelmed and don’t know how to deal with this,” said Ellicotville High School Principal Erich Ploetz.

It is not the only county in which hiring ambition has outstripped the number of talent available. Some counties have turned to external providers to help fill mental health vacancies, while others are training existing staff.

The Kansas City, Kansas school system is using a portion of its $ 918,000 mental health budget to pay social workers and counselors already at the new clinic after school. The county has also added additional staff and mental health examinations.

Angela Dunn, who leads mental health and suicide initiatives in a district of 22,000 students, said the mental health services team has responded to 27 student deaths and 16 staff deaths since the start of the pandemic, double the usual rate during this period. She said several employees have died from COVID-19, but many more have been homicides, suicides and overdoses.

School investments in student mental health services have raised some privacy concerns, especially as schools now monitor student computers for distress signals or conduct mental health surveys for all students. But the idea that schools have no place to study has receded.

“We just realized that it’s comfortable for students to seek help in a school setting,” Dunn said.

Chicago, the third-largest school district in the country, has unveiled a “wellness plan” for students using $ 24 million out of $ 2.6 billion in stimulus funds.

Over the next three years, the district will expand “care teams” – a staff that will be at the forefront of responding to student concerns – on each campus. It is planned that 200 schools will be covered by the spring.

High school principal Angelica Altamirano used some of the funds to open up a space equipped with comfortable furniture and a comfortable air hockey table. The campus center already offers grief groups for students whose family members or friends have died and is helping teachers cope with burnout.

In Topeka, Kansas, $ 100,000 has been allocated for soothing items and staff for sensory rooms, including one at Quincy Elementary School. When students are so upset that they put their heads on the table, go out into the hallway, or cry, teachers can send them to the Roadrunner room. There they can climb into the tent and snuggle under a weighted blanket, assemble a puzzle, play with sand, or build a Lego structure.

Dean of Student Services Andrea Keck watched as the room became a place where one student could get rid of frustration.

“She can keep a journal, style her hair and do whatever she needs to do, and then she succeeds for the rest of the day,” said Keck, who looks after the room.

In Detroit, the district is spending $ 34 million on mental health initiatives, including screening students, expanding assistance from outside mental health providers, and providing additional support for parents.

On a recent Wednesday, that meant an hour-long meditation session for parents at a local coffee shop. One participant worried that her own stress was affecting her son’s ability to learn.

“As a community, we’ve all been through something,” said Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent who attended the session. “Part of recovery should be some deliberate work in places like this so that we can be close to our children.”

___

Thompson reported from Ellicotville, New York, and Hollingsworth from Mission, Kansas. Chalkbeat authors Catherine Carrera in Newark, New Jersey, Cassie Walker Burke in Chicago and Lori Higgins in Detroit, and Associated Press writer Colleen Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.

Nation World News Desk
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