District spending plans reveal a mixed bag when it comes to addressing mental health

Idaho’s youth were in need of mental health supports long before a global pandemic exacerbated student stress.

Providing those supports in schools can be an effective way to make sure kids get the help they need. But, in Idaho, access to services varies widely depending on where a student lives and the outlook of their district administrators.

The state has no requirements that school districts provide mental health services or supports for students, though state education leaders strongly encourage it. The closest thing to a mandate came from the federal government earlier this year: as a condition of receiving millions in pandemic relief money through the American Rescue Plan Act, schools have to detail how they’re addressing “students’ social, emotional, mental health and academic needs resulting from the pandemic,” in a public plan.

Idaho Education News reviewed spending plans from Idaho’s 180 school districts and public charter schools, with the exception of a couple dozen that don’t seem to be posted online yet. The plans reveal a continuation of the state’s patchwork approach:

Some districts put a premium on helping students with their social-emotional health and are investing ARPA funds in ramping up those services. But some don’t really have — or at least didn’t detail — comprehensive plans to take on that role.

It’s unclear which of the spending plans are finalized. A document from the State Department of Education from late October shows that many districts were asked to make revisions to their plans. Others had not yet been reviewed by the state. The SDE plans to complete the review process by the first week of December, federal programs director Karen Seay said in an email.

Almost all districts addressed student mental health to some extent.  On one end of the spectrum, districts like Bonneville detailed structured plans for expanding mental health supports.

Bonneville recently appointed a new administrator in charge of student’s social and emotional health, and is using ARPA funds to pay his salary for the  first few years.  The district is also creating a new reporting system where kids can text-in concerns about themselves or a friend. Kids have already reported issues of bullying and suicidal ideation, alerting administrators to step-in, superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said.

“We’ve had a concerted effort to have mental health supports for our kids. What this does is it helps us talk about an overall design for success, for every student regardless of which school they go to,” Woolstenhulme said.

Most districts mentioned at least a couple of specific interventions they plan to use to support kids. One popular use of the ARPA money is to expand the availability  of school counselors or psychologists.

The Clark County School District, for example, is using ARPA funds to pay for more support staff hours, so counselors and administrators can spend less time doing paperwork and more time on student mental health. American Heritage Charter School was one of many districts and charters to pay for more counselors. The district is using federal funds to extend its counselor from part-time to full-time.

“It’s important that we focus on the whole child, the academics and social-emotional health,” said Tiffnee Hurst, head administrator at the school. “It’s been rough the last few years and I think that’s important for the kids, making sure they are healthy.”

Some districts say that staying in school in-person was their primary tool for supporting student’s emotional health. Others say they purchased playground equipment or are building new outside learning spaces to support students’ emotional and social well-being.

Still, a handful of plans skirted any mention of mental health, despite the requirement that schools describe how ARPA-funded interventions “will respond to the academic, social, emotional and mental health needs” of students.

Find links to each of those plans, and a brief description of districts’ mental health spending plans, here.

(EdNews was unable to find a public plan for districts highlighted in yellow. As those plans are published online, or provided to EdNews, the spreadsheet will be updated).

Sami Edge

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