The return to in-person learning at schools in Massachusetts and across the nation has certainly been a challenging enough endeavor, with administrators juggling a host of problems, from a shortage of COVID-19 testing supplies to hotspots that temporarily shutter classrooms.
But school officials have an equally difficult yet crucial task for which failure cannot be an option: providing effective mental health services in every school to give students care they need more than ever after nearly two years of upheaval caused by the pandemic.
That school administrators are well aware of the need is a good start.
“We are at an inflection point,” said Ian Lang, chief executive officer of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, which works with schools and community-based organizations throughout Greater Boston. “We know for a fact that one of the primary drivers of absenteeism in schools is mental illness. And we know that high absenteeism leads to poorer outcomes.”
Even before the pandemic, young people in America were facing a mental health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 8 had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. For children living below the federal poverty level, that number rose to 22 percent.
Then, COVID-19 wreaked more mental havoc. Children tackled remote learning — and the isolation that came with it — all while dealing with any number of other stressors, such as the loss of loved ones, food insecurity, economic anxiety, and, in rare cases, health issues from the virus itself.
The good news is that schools have more funding sources at their disposal this year, including $1.8 billion in temporary federal aid for schools for the state from the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill. School districts have until Oct. 4 to apply for those funds, and the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership has created a toolkit for school districts to craft plans to submit to the state.
That planning, experts said, can be the hard part. The amount of support, as well as the kinds of needed services, varies from district to district. Schools should implement a multitiered approach: screening and core mental health and wellness services made available to all students; more focused care available to those who need it; and crucial support for those with the most urgent needs. The last category includes those who have had prolonged periods of mental-health-related absenteeism.
Equally as important as the plan itself is ensuring enough staffing to make it work.
“Even if you did universal screening at every school, there are not even close to the number of providers to take on the work,” said Lang. “If we don’t address that, all the screening in the world, all of the policy in the world, isn’t going to give you the outcomes you’re looking for.”
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per counselor in schools. But on average, that number is 464 to 1, according to the ASCA. Again, those are pre-pandemic statistics, before state and local budgets — including those for school funding — were slashed due to the economic hit on municipal government budgets.
Using emergency funding to boost hiring, as well as seeking out partnerships with local nonprofits to provide care, can help make up the staffing gap in the short term. But long-term investment in staffing to ensure ongoing support for students should be a top and permanent priority of every school budget.
With many students already back in their classrooms, and the deadline for applying for emergency funding drawing near, there is no time for school officials to waste, even as they juggle a host of complications to resume in-person learning. While schools can’t be expected to be the primary mental health care provider for all young people, they are uniquely situated to ensure more equitable access to mental health support. And now more than ever, it’s a responsibility school officials must take seriously.
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