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3 Policy Recommendations to Safeguard Students’ Mental Health

The new administration’s guidance on schools reopening must address the youth mental health crisis.

April 5, 2021
Samantha Pratt

Samantha Asante

Samantha Pratt

Samantha Asante

Since Miguel Cardona took office as the Secretary of Education in March, he's understandably been focused on quickly reopening schools.

As he works to ensure the physical safety of returning to school buildings, I implore him to focus equally on planning for students' emotional safety measures. 

This last year has resulted in an increase in mental health issues for many students with untold long-term consequences. Not only are students facing the same health risks as the rest of the world right now, but they are also increasingly being exposed to complex traumas such as fear-based anxiety, food insecurity, and parental unemployment. 

The early data is staggering. According to Mental Health America (MHA), the number of youth experiencing severe major depression in 2020 increased by 121,000 from the previous year, with the numbers highest for multiracial-identifying youth. Youth ages 11-17 accessed the MHA screening at a greater rate in 2020 than ever before, and these youth have been more likely than any other age group to present with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. By fall 2020, more than half of youth ages 11-17 reported thoughts of suicide or self-harm. This data is further backed up by research from the CDC showing that mental health-related visits to the ER increased by 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% for youth ages 12-17 during the pandemic.

The lesson here: Students’ mental health has been negatively impacted during the pandemic and it is not a small problem. 

Unfortunately, schools have not been able to effectively support students. In some cases, it's due to the limitations of the hybrid/virtual learning environment; in other cases, the lack of support is more directly tied to funding and capacity issues. This inability to meet students’ mental health needs has long been an issue. Prior to the pandemic, 60% of youth with depression did not receive support, according to MHA. Without intentional policies and interventions in place, the number of youth suffering from mental illness and not receiving support will continue to increase.

Secretary Cardona has a long track record of recognizing the impacts of "secondary factors" on student success and overall well-being. As Connecticut Commissioner of Education, he indicated support for addressing academic achievement gaps by looking at factors both in and out of schools. He also promoted community school models and trauma-informed practices in schools. However, we know that even the strongest leaders can be limited in their impact at the federal level. 

In that spirit, I’d like to suggest a few policies that Secretary Cardona should consider implementing in order to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on long-term student psychological development.

“The lesson here: Students’ mental health has been negatively impacted during the pandemic and it is not a small problem.”

Samantha Pratt

CEO and Founder, KlickEngage

Miami-Dade '15

1. Increase funding for school-based mental health services and incentivize innovation.

The federal government just approved the $13.2 billion Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund. These funds will be available for use by State Educational Agencies (SEAs) through 2023. However, the allowable uses for these funds are very broad. Schools can use these funds for anything associated with responding to COVID-19 such as improving air quality in school buildings, purchasing COVID tests, and addressing learning loss. Secretary Cardona should provide specific guidance on how to leverage this funding to improve school-based mental health services. Schools that allot a certain percentage of their funding for innovative mental health approaches should be eligible for additional grant opportunities as an incentive. Examples of innovative approaches could include:

  • Encouraging schools to hire a licensed cognitive therapist, certified mental health counselor, or have at least one staff member trained in trauma-informed practices
  • Having districts commission the creation of a database to source and hire mental health professionals
  • Providing professional development opportunities for school staff on trauma-informed practices
  • Implementing ed-tech programs that support standards-aligned social-emotional supports such as Second Step or KlickEngage

2. Provide stricter guidelines for state and city-level Children's Cabinets.

A whole-community approach is necessary to ensure the most vulnerable youth have access to mental health services. Many states have Children’s Cabinets, coalitions of multi-sector stakeholders that receive state funding. These Children's Cabinets include collaborations between state and local government agencies to coordinate services that support children's wellbeing. However, these city and state-led organizations often face challenges with focusing their approaches, finding times to regularly meet, and including government bodies in the conversations early-on. Harvard Redesign Lab has dedicated its work to identifying best practices for Children’s Cabinets and have found that including mayors as part of the coalition and setting a single goal is critical to their impact. By providing clearer guidance for these organizations, we can ensure that they successfully impact their communities.

3. Form a committee dedicated to increasing transparency around sharing student data between community providers.

Data privacy and student data-sharing have long been issues for schools and community agencies. Data privacy laws for children are strict for good reason because there is always the danger of sensitive student data being misused. However, schools, youth services, and healthcare providers risk not having access to potentially life-saving information when they are unable to share data and collaborate around whole-child care. Data-sharing allows all stakeholders to have the same baseline knowledge of a child, leading to more consistent and efficient supports for children. We can share data without compromising data privacy. There are phenomenal organizations, such as the Future of Privacy Forum and Common Sense Education, doing the kind of work necessary to ensure transparency around student data. But we need more direct assistance from the federal government for this work.

The burdens that students are carrying as they return to school are substantial, but there are clear ways in which we can support them holistically. We just need the right leadership, true intentions, and timely responses.

As an expert on the impact of mental health on classroom achievement, Samantha Pratt works to provide equitable education for all students. Pratt is a 2015 Miami-Dade alum and currently serves as CEO and Founder of KlickEngage, an ed-tech company that uses tech to amplify the voices of students, facilitate access to resources, and ensure every child feels safe and supported. She has a Master's in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and hopes to create lasting civic change around mental health in schools.

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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