Is federal COVID money enough to solve the mental health crisis in Michigan schools?


Almost a year has passed since the last online lesson for these fifth graders. Kassem is an outgoing child who smiles behind his glasses while talking. But his face darkened at the memory of sitting in his room all day in front of a computer screen.

“Virtual learning made me so angry,” he said. “I felt like I was stuck.”

Today, however, Kassem and his classmates are compiling a list of 15 kind things students can do for another person. At another table, students are invited to write kind notes to friends. “Dear Rached,” writes one student. “You are always there for me and you are the nicest person I have met in my life.”

Their teacher, Kristin Koss, has worked in the Dearborn district for decades. In previous years, she said, social workers would visit her classroom for social-emotional learning twice a year, not once a week.

“It’s money well spent,” she said of the district’s new social worker hires. “The kids came back to class (after virtual learning) and they didn’t know how to do school, they were so immature. These lessons are helping.

Hashem’s presence also gives teachers space to focus on students with the most pressing academic needs – no small feat for teachers working to help students catch up on learning. While Hashem was working with the class, Koss took a single student aside to help him with a math concept he was struggling with.

At Kassem’s table, one of his neighbors, Mazen, agreed that classes with Hashem pay off.

“To take care of others, you have to take care of yourself,” she said. “I learned that here.”

A broad consensus on mental health

Michigan has taken note of the mental health issues of students like Khyiana Tate.

“The students — myself included — we have been isolated,” said Khyiana, a senior at Michigan School for the Deaf. “I was stuck at home. Many times I was depressed. They don’t know what it’s like to have outside socialization and just be torn away from us.

For Tate, one solution is to hire more social workers and counsellors.

Many Michiganders would agree. They are placing a higher priority on managing COVID funds, according to a January survey led by Chalkbeat and the Detroit Free Press. Policymakers have also focused on student mental health with budget proposals and efforts to revamp a health care system that lacks beds and providers to meet the needs of young people battling mental illness at an increasing rate.

Yet schools are struggling to find mental health workers to hire. The pandemic has caused turmoil in labor markets, adding to a shortage of trained school social workers that began years before, said Kim Battjes, a professor at Michigan State University who trains school social workers. While districts can find someone to hire, Battjes said, they often have to find ways to train them on the job.

“It’s like, ‘Yay, we get money! Oh no, we don’t have staff to fill these positions!'” she said. never even worked with a child a day in their lives as therapists in schools.”

COVID funds alone will not be enough to improve working conditions in schools, which have been deteriorating for years, making hiring more difficult, said Elizabeth Koschmann, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and director of TRAILS to Wellness, a non-profit organization. that shares research-based mental health practices with schools.

“The environment inside our schools is characterized by unimaginable stress, pressure and competing demands all of which present themselves as pressing priorities,” she said in an email. “And yet, staff salaries remain largely the same. Burnout is driving staff away from across the education field, and districts are not finding enough people willing to accept open jobs.

Surveys of parents and teachers in Coloma, a small town on the west side of the state, suggest that social and emotional health should be a top priority, echoing across the state survey results. But the district decided not to expand its staff of social workers, opting instead to purchase software that promotes social-emotional learning. District leaders were reluctant to fund positions with one-time money and feared they wouldn’t be able to hire social workers if they tried.

“We didn’t try to allocate funds to social workers because we knew we couldn’t find them,” said Dave Ehlers, superintendent of Coloma Community Schools.

In Detroit, the school district opted to contract out additional mental health services rather than temporarily hire new counselors and social workers, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

Dearborn, a large urban district bordering Detroit, has taken a different route. The district has hired new social workers using federal funds on the assumption that it will not replace employees in other areas, if needed, as funding runs out.

“A lot of the way we look at funding is through attrition,” said David Mustonen, director of communications for Dearborn Public Schools. “Being a large district, we know we can lose between 80 and 100 teaching staff each year. This may mean that we are not replacing a resource teacher, or perhaps instead of four guards in a building, there are three.

And it might not even be necessary, Mustonen said, if state funding for education increases, which Whitmer is proposing amid a historic budget surplus.

‘Highs and lows’

After asking her son’s former teacher for help, Mariana Hernandez found a therapist for her son at Southwest Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit in southwest Detroit, where she lives.

His depression eased somewhat, she said, and suicidal thoughts stopped, though he felt anxious and isolated when his school in the Detroit Public Schools Community District reopened this fall.

“It has its ups and downs, and the lows we have are still very low,” she said.

The episode left Hernandez with a sense of guilt. Was she prepared for something like this? Should she have noticed earlier how much her son was struggling?

She said she would have benefited from training in how to recognize mental illness in a child. And she said she’s glad that many districts, including Detroit, are looking to expand their mental health workforce.

Federal COVID funds can help with that and more. In response to the pandemic, the federal government has poured a record amount into schools – $6 billion in Michigan alone. Chalkbeat, the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan are collaborating to track where the money goes and how it helps students.

To report on how schools are using the money to support student mental health, we looked at state records showing how districts planned to spend their share. Among the ideas:

  • Lansing Public Schools creates mental health programs with TRAILS to Wellness, a school-based program at the University of Michigan. TRAILS offers brief mental health lessons designed to be delivered to entire classes, through student wellness surveys, mental health activities for staff, and suicide protocols.
  • In Grand Blanc, a suburb of Flint, the school district plans to hire seven new staff members to work one-on-one with students on social and emotional issues — one for two elementary buildings, one for each middle school and one for high school. Students will be selected to work with new staff based on a mental health assessment or adult referrals.
  • The Kalamazoo District plans to provide 100 teachers with an annual stipend to meet with small groups of students in consultative sessions that will focus on the challenges students face in life.
  • In Grand Rapids, the district plans to cover the cost of additional social workers and therapists.
  • The Detroit Public Schools Community District spend $10 million to contract with five organizations to provide mental health services, including therapy and diagnosis, to 3,700 Detroit students with more severe mental health needs. The district has expanded its full-time counseling staff in recent years, but demand for their services has become overwhelming during the pandemic.
  • In Battle Creek, the district plans to hire a student support coordinator, an administrator who will help schools develop plans to address serious student mental health issues and work with community agencies to connect students to services. mental health outside of school.
  • In Flint, the district has hired a behavioral specialist to address student trauma as classrooms reopen. When classes were virtual, the district hired a social-emotional learning coordinator to work with students in grades 9 through 12 who were learning online during the 2020-2021 school year.
  • In Plainwell, near Kalamazoo, teachers, social workers and other staff are set to revise district curricula to incorporate social-emotional learning into university courses. For example, a math teacher might include instructions on how to manage frustration or work with partners to solve difficult problems.
  • Chatfield School in rural southeast Michigan has hired an outside company to deliver mental health workshops to parents, students and staff.
  • North Huron Schools, a small rural district in eastern Michigan, purchased a therapy dog ​​named Chipper who lives with a teacher and spends his days at school. Teachers can recommend distressed students to spend time with Chipper.

As federal funds become available, Michigan has a massive budget surplus. As student activists call for expanded mental health services in the wake of last year’s school shooting in Oxford, Whitmer wants the state to invest an additional $361 million in student mental health. This proposal will likely be challenged by the Republican legislature, which proposes to spend the surplus on tax cuts.

Yet these new investments may not be able to meet mental health service needs. Consider the Grand Haven school district in western Michigan, where a series of six suicides between 2011 and 2017 inspired district leaders to expand their mental health workforce to the levels that many other districts are trying to achieve today.


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