By Noah Cruz and Tammy Jo Musgraves
The coronavirus pandemic has caused the closure of at least 124,000 schools across 47 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
As a result, nearly 60 million students will be learning from home for the foreseeable future. While transitioning to online classes and teaching may affect a students’ ability to learn, closures may also affect their mental health and access to services and contribute to increased challenges at home.
According to the education consulting firm EAB, 75% of students receive mental health care services in a school setting. Without being at school, it may be difficult for children and adolescents with mental health needs to access needed resources or support. These resources are especially important as students deal with the COVID-19 crisis and problems that may arise while sheltering at home.
Prior to the pandemic, states have pursued a variety of steps to increase access to mental health services as well as training for teachers. At least 20 states and territories have enacted measures to institute or increase mental health training or services for students and teachers in K-12 schools and higher education.
However, as of April 14, approximately 24 legislatures have suspended or postponed legislative sessions due to COIVD-19. Thus, state executive branches, school districts and national organizations are working to support mental health services for students, parents and caregivers through technology-based solutions and communication recommendations.
In response to school closures, governors in Michigan and New Mexico recently issued guidance to state school districts regarding student mental health services. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D), issued an executive order on April 2 requiring schools to create remote learning plans and continue mental health services for students. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) issued a press release on March 27 calling on the New Mexico Department of Children and Families to work with the Department Human Services and managed care organizations to “provide families digital access to mental health services for children and youth.”
State education agencies in Texas and New Jersey have also responded to student mental health needs during COVID-19. The Texas Education Agency issued remote instructions on April 14 for local education agencies “to provide remote counseling and student support services.” Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) permits services to be delivered by school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists and other qualified professional personnel. School-based tele-mental health services can also be provided by non-physician mental health professionals who are employed by the local education agency or contracted to provide school-based mental health services.
The New Jersey State Board of Education approved emergency changes to the state administrative code, allowing “authorized agencies to waive/suspend/modify any existing rule, where the enforcement of the rule would be detrimental to the public welfare during the emergency.” This change, which went into effect April 1, is particularly important for students with disabilities. Given an extended school closure timeline, schools may abide by a student’s individual education plan (IEP) and deliver services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and counseling through telehealth.
Numerous associations, organizations and centers are offering online resources for educators, parents and others to support children with mental health needs, and enhance social and emotional learning at home for times of crisis and everyday needs.
And finally, recommendations to keep lines of communication open at home during this time of social distancing have been published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Child Mind Institute. Considerations from the WHO include finding positive ways to express fear and sadness, while remaining open and honest “in an age-appropriate” way about COVID-19.The Child Mind Institute also recommends finding ways to manage personal anxiety and continuing to talk with kids throughout this time.
Noah Cruz is a research analyst in NCSL’s Health Program.
Tammy Jo Musgraves is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Health Program.
Email Tammy Jo