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Mental Health in Schools: What Happens When COVID Funding Ends?

Districts that used Covid funds to support mental health face some tough decisions

Since federal COVID relief funding ends on September 30, 2024, school district leaders are grappling with whether to continue the services that were financed through this funding. For those who used the funding to expand support for mental health and wellbeing, many school leaders wonder how they should assess the impact of those programs. 

To gain insight into this, I sat down with Dr. Shashank Joshi, Professor and Director of School Mental Health at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. In our conversation, we spoke specifically about a local K-8 district that used COVID recovery funds to support a full-time mental health counselor in each of its twelve schools, but the learnings apply to efforts in other contexts.

LOWE:  As district leaders and their boards consider ways to sustain school-based mental health support, do you have any advice about how they can think about return on investment?

JOSHI: I think return on investment is a great frame. It just depends on what your measure of success is—is it teachers not leaving the district, using a wellbeing index to track how well your students and staff are doing over time, the number of students seen by a mental health counselor, or higher graduation rates?

The outcomes and the results are going to be very different depending on what you're measuring, and it has to involve a conversation with community and school leaders. We can say, "Improved grades would be great," but before grades can change, we can look for other signs of progress—is attendance changing? Is parent engagement changing? Are we doing something right with our curricular content? Grades are often a sort of holy grail, but it's a long road to get there. 

Q:  Could you say more about how teacher wellbeing is connected to student wellbeing?

A:  We have to get back to taking care of ourselves and our own wellbeing to be there for our students and our colleagues. With more longevity, less turnover, and less burnout, adults can be trusted allies for our students who rely on us. It’s important that the district invests in mental health and wellbeing for teachers and staff as well as for students.   

Teachers will not be able to do their best work, attune to individual student needs, and open the door to  crucial conversations within safe spaces if they need to take multiple mental health days because they're fatigued and not feeling support from the administration. It goes far beyond telling staff to get more yoga, nutrition, hydration, and sleep. What is the school/district doing? How is the principal cultivating wellbeing? 

Having a mental health counselor embedded in a school is important for students, but it's also important for staff, so they know they're not being asked to take on everything all by themselves. When there’s a counselor on-site, the teacher can breathe and learn what they can do in the classroom to support upstream interventions and conversations. They know there's someone else in the school who they can send a student to if they’re worried about something.

Q:  It sounds like you’re talking about reframing the return on investment and remembering that investing in teachers is key to investing in students. Do you have any suggestions on where to start with that reframe?

A:  If teachers are given a simple tool or taught an intervention that allows them to feel they have a greater sense of efficacy, they can be more effective in the classroom. When you're more effective, you are less likely to be looking for another job. Most teachers don’t get formal training on how to handle the mental health aspect of the classroom and they end up learning on the job. So, when we talk about teacher versatility and capacity building, we’re talking about something that's going to last way longer than the federal COVID recovery money, the Biden funds, and the state funds. 

Unfortunately, teachers often feel like they just can’t take on one more thing, much less a conversation about a student’s mental health if there's nobody to send the child to for additional support. Honestly, most of the time you have the conversation, you're not going to hear something scary. You're going to hear something you can do something about, which is simply to be there, hold space for conversation, and do some problem-solving together. And you're likely to get that when you take care of your teachers by providing them with more tools. It can also help to have a counselor support that conversation. 

I think about an oxygen mask on planes—you can’t help someone else until you help yourself first. If you're a corporate leader, you can only be there for your team members, family, and friends, if you take care of yourself first. The same is true for our teachers. As a school community, we need to be paying attention. What are the things that keep our teachers engaged and coming back year after year? How can we invest in them so that they don’t feel like they’re doing it all on their own? 

Q:  What do you think school boards should think about when it comes to supporting mental health and wellbeing?

A: Board members are thinking about the whole system. If they're going to invest their money in something, yes, it's important that we have direct services.  It's also important that we have a system in place that can incorporate all the different things that we might be experiencing as a community. There might be another pandemic or a sudden death (by accident, by suicide, or by other causes). We need to respond well if these things happen. And I think that school boards need to pay attention to the long view—after they're no longer on the board, what might their legacy be? Maybe it’s setting up a system where every school has a counselor, addressing basic needs that all students have. 

We invest in teachers having the tools to be able to cultivate their students' mental health and wellbeing because the students need to be healthy enough to learn. That includes being able to have conversations about how we cope with difficulties and who to turn to when we're stressed, depressed, and so much more.

Q:  I appreciate that reminder about the long view. So many efforts in education come and go over time. I wonder if you have any guidance regarding how school leaders can help sustain their focus on their commitment to mental health?

A:  Everyone in a boardroom knows someone who has struggled with a mental health condition and knows that there's been stigma along the way. 

Students come to school by the age of 5. They're with us seven hours a day, and if we're not attending to their mental health, we're not attending to their development as young people. They're not going to be healthy enough to learn and access the wonderful curriculum we're creating. Their brains have to be healthy enough to engage, and mental health must be seen as part of overall health. 

Our children have to be healthy enough to learn and our teachers need to be healthy enough and versatile enough, as well—equipped with the tools they need to reach and teach each of their students. That's something every school board member can get behind.

This project was conducted as part of the Stanford Redwood City Sequoia School Mental Health Collaborative, a partnership including Redwood City School District, Sequoia Union High School District, Stanford’s Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, and Stanford’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities to build district capacity to support mental health and wellbeing. This work is generously funded by Stanford’s Office of the Provost through the Office of Community Engagement.

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