It’s been almost a year since these fifth-graders last conducted an online lesson. Kassem is a friendly child who smiles behind his glasses when he talks. But his face darkens from memories of sitting in his bedroom all day in front of a computer screen.

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

Today, however, Kosem and his classmates make a list of 15 good things students can do for another person. At another table, students are asked to write polite notes to friends. “Dear Rached,” one student wrote. “You’re always by my side, and you’re the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

Their teacher, Christine Kos, has been working in the Dearborn area for decades. In previous years, she said, social workers visited her class for social and emotional learning twice a year – more than once a week.

“It’s well-spent money,” she said of the district’s new staff. “The kids came back to class (after virtual learning) and they didn’t know how to go to school, they were so immature. These lessons help. ”

Hachem’s presence also gives teachers the opportunity to focus on students with the most pressing academic needs – no less important for teachers working to help students catch up on lost learning. While Hachem was working with the class, Kos pulled one student aside to help him with the math he was struggling with.

At Kasem’s table, one of his neighbors, Mazen, agreed that lessons with Hahem would pay off.

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

Broad consensus on mental health

Michigan has drawn attention to combating the mental health of students like Hayana Tate.

“The students – myself included – were isolated,” said Hayana, a senior at the Michigan School for the Deaf. “I was stuck at home. Many times I have been depressed. They don’t know what it’s like to communicate outside, just to break out from under us. “

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

Many michiganders will agree. As of January, they are giving higher priority to addressing COVID funds poll held by Chalkbeat and Detroit Free Press. Politicians also have turned the attention mental health of students with budget proposals and efforts to rebuild a health care system that lacks beds and providers to meet the needs of the youth struggling with mental illness at an increasing rate.

However, schools are struggling to find mental health workers who can be hired. The pandemic has caused shocks in labor markets, adding to the shortage of trained social workers at the school, which began many years ago, said Kim Batges, a professor at the University of Michigan who trains school social workers. If districts can find someone to hire, Batges said, they should often find ways to train them on the job.

“It’s like,‘ Yes, we get money! Oh no, we don’t have people for these positions! ” She said. “School districts hire people who have never even worked with a child as a therapist in schools.”

Funding on COVID alone will not be enough to improve working conditions in schools that have deteriorated over the years, making it difficult to hire, said Elizabeth Koshman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and director of the nonprofit TRAILS to Wellness. sharing research-based mental health techniques with schools.

“The environment in our schools is unimaginable stress, pressure and relentless competing demands, all of which are present as immediate priorities,” she said in an email. “And yet, staff salaries have largely remained the same. Burnout removes staff from the entire education sector, and districts cannot find enough people willing to find open jobs. ”

Surveys of parents and teachers in Kolomna, a small town on the west side of the state, suggest that social and emotional health should be a top priority, responding across the state survey results. But the district decided not to expand the staff of social workers, and purchased software that promotes social and emotional learning. District leaders feared funding for the posts for one-time money and worried they would not be able to hire social workers if they tried.

“We didn’t try to allocate funds for social workers because we knew we couldn’t find them,” said Dave Ehlers, head of public schools in Kolomyia.

In Detroit, the school district has decided to contract for additional mental health services rather than temporarily hiring new counselors and social workers, said Superintendent Nicholas Viti.

Dearborn, a large urban area bordering Detroit, went the other way. The county has hired new social workers using federal funds, assuming that if necessary it will not replace employees in other areas as funding runs out.

“A lot of the way we look at funding comes through depletion,” said David Mustonen, director of communications for public schools in Dearborn. “Being a big district, we know we can lose 80 to 100 teachers every year. This may mean that we are not replacing the resource teacher, or maybe there will be three guards in the building instead of four. ”

And it may not even be necessary, Mustonen said, if public funding for education increases, which Whitmer suggests amid a historic budget surplus.

‘Ups and downs’

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

She said his depression had eased somewhat, and thoughts of suicide had stopped, though he felt anxious and isolated when his school in the Detroit Schools public district reopened this fall.

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

This episode left Hernandez feeling guilty. Was she ready for something like that? Should she have noticed before how hard her son struggled?

She said she would benefit from learning how to recognize a child’s mental illness. And she said she is glad that many counties, including Detroit, are looking to expand their mental health staff.

Federal COVID funds can help with this and others. In response to the pandemic, the federal government has donated a record amount of money to schools – $ 6 billion in Michigan alone. Chalkbeat, Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan are working together to track where the money is going and how they are helping students.

To report on how schools use the money to support students ’mental health, we reviewed government records showing how districts planned to spend their share. Among the ideas:

  • Lansing Public Schools is creating mental health programs through TRAILS to Wellness, a school program based at the University of Michigan. TRAILS provides brief mental health lessons designed to deliver for entire classes, through student well-being 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 individually with students on social and emotional issues – one for every two elementary school buildings, one for each high school and one for each school. high school. Students will be selected to work with new employees based on a mental health assessment or adult referral.
  • Kalamazoo County plans to pay 100 teachers an annual stipend for meeting with small groups of students in counseling sessions that address issues the students face in life.
  • The Grand Rapids district plans to cover the cost of additional social workers and therapists.
  • Detroit County State will to spend $ 10 million to contract with five organizations for mental health services, including therapy and diagnosis, to 3,700 Detroit students with more severe mental needs. In recent years, the district has expanded its staff of consultants, but during the pandemic the demand for their services became huge.
  • The Battle Creek district plans to hire a student support coordinator, an administrator who will help schools develop plans to address serious mental health issues for students and will work with community agencies to engage students in mental health services outside of school.
  • In Flint, the county contracted with a behavioral specialist to eliminate student injuries when classes reopened. When classes were virtual, the district hired a social and emotional learning coordinator to work with students in grades 9-12 who studied online in the 2020-21 school year.
  • In Plainwell, near Kalamazoo, teachers, social workers and other staff are going to review district curricula to bring socio-emotional learning into teaching lessons. For example, a math teacher may include instructions on how to deal with frustration or work with partners to solve complex problems.
  • The Chatfield School in rural southeastern Michigan has hired an outside firm to conduct mental health workshops for parents, students, and staff.
  • North Huron Schools, a small rural area in eastern Michigan, has acquired a dog therapist named Chipper who lives with a teacher and spends his days at the school. Teachers can refer students who are in trouble to spend time with Chipper.

At the same time, when federal funds become available, Michigan has big budget surplus. With student activists calling for more mental health services after last year’s shooting at a school in Oxford, Whitmer wants the state to invest an additional $ 361 million in students ’mental health. This proposal is likely to be challenged by the Republican legislature, which proposes to spend the surplus on tax cuts.

However, these new investments may not be able to keep up with the need for mental health services. Consider the Grand Haven School District in western Michigan, where Fr. a series of six suicides between 2011 and 2017 pushed district leaders to expand their mental health staff to the level that many other districts are trying to reach today.

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