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How schools can leverage COVID funds to support student mental health

Posted: August 05, 2022

The Wall Street Journal reported that as of May, many states and school districts had spent only 7% of the $122 billion allocated for education under the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The money in the ARP was meant to address mental health problems, learning loss, and other issues the pandemic was inflicting on schools. If the money is not spent by September 2024, it will reportedly disappear from school budgets

In May 2022 it was also reported that seven in 10 public schools saw a rise in the number of children seeking mental health services, and 76% reported faculty and staff members have expressed concerns about depression, anxiety, and trauma in students since the start of the pandemic (National Center for Education Statistics, NCES).

Amid these increases, only about half of all schools said they were able to effectively provide much-needed mental health services mostly due to either insufficient staffing or insufficient funding.

Every day, month, and semester that passes results in more students struggling, especially those from low-income families who are less likely to have received academic or mental health support and are on average 13 months behind their peers academically.

As back-to-school season approaches, how can school systems leverage ARP funds and address the dire need for student mental health care?

Develop a virtual mental health support ecosystem

For many students – especially teenagers – sitting in a therapist’s office is not particularly enticing. However, talking to a therapist online may sound more comfortable. If schools can build a virtual ecosystem of care, giving students access to both virtual and in-person care, many times the environment and the student themselves will dictate what works best. The end goal is for them to seek help in whatever way works for them.

Schools can invest in virtual care solutions that make care accessible to most students and families while also expanding the school’s network of providers as workforce shortages continue in mental health care. Having the schools participate in an ecosystem of care bridges the interoperability divide, creating a technology ecosystem that interacts with other healthcare systems to provide a better patient experience. Educators, mental health clinicians, primary care doctors and more can all be working from the same ecosystem.

As it relates to cost, the parent or guardian’s employer insurance will offset the service costs to the schools for students who have the ability to leverage insurance. For those without insurance, this surplus of ARP dollars can support equitable access to quality care, following a similar model Florida has with the payer of last resort. Together, schools and families can support the positive development of the child both in the education and home environments.

Further enhancing care access is a device-agnostic telemedicine platform that enables access to care via mobile phones, laptops, computers, tablets, and more. In areas with poor internet connectivity, schools can leverage new broadband alternatives such as Elon Musk’s Starlink are satellite internet service as well as efforts through USDA and FCC broadband expansion into rural areas.

Schools can also invest in centralized kiosks from which students can participate in virtual visits in a dedicated space. Providers can manage the session remotely. Adding other medical peripheral devices adds acute care ability to provide medical intake which assists in Substance Use Disorder and other medical conditions. 

The right virtual solution goes beyond virtual sessions with a licensed behavioral health provider, supporting referral and case management, modernizing how a student’s treatment process is tracked and recorded. Follow-up sessions and ongoing treatment rates are improved with virtual care as therapists and school counselors leverage the same digital portal to communicate when students are getting help and when they are not. They can share updates with the parents as well if an intervention is needed.

Virtual care also enables families to remain involved in the support process, whether that means a parent or variance helping to select a therapist and attend a virtual visit with a child or signing off on a visit with a virtual provider. Working parents and guardians often find it hard to attend in-person therapist visits with their children. When caregivers cannot take their children to psychiatrists due to work, it further extends the time for pediatric patients to get much-needed help.

For Inspiration, Follow Florida

School systems in Florida are at the forefront when it comes to leveraging virtual care to ensure students have access to mental health care. Many Florida counties have made a significant investment in making virtual care accessible, enabling students to meet with a therapist virtually. First Lady Casey DeSantis’ Hope for Healing Initiative, launched in 2019, proved these access points were successful, enabling real-time care to be available for more than 50,000 students across the Panhandle. Let’s Talk Interactive supported the program development and deployment in record timing.

Today, many students and their families across the state now have access to these valuable virtual resources and an expanded network of licensed care. In the state of Florida alone, we’ve enabled more than 20,000 encounters of virtual care over the last 2 years.

A solid investment of funds has been dedicated to mental health across the U.S. To have the funds to support children that have been impacted by COVID and other isolating regulations with a sustainable mental health program and to do nothing is not what is needed today. Parents and guardians should reach out to their local schools and school districts asking for access to mental health programs and how much is available for their child's healthcare.