HARRISBURG – Students returning to school may well be coming to class with mental health issues, aggravated by the stress of life during a pandemic and the forced isolation it caused, state officials were told Wednesday.

Sherri Smith, acting deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, told lawmakers that even before the pandemic 1 in 5 students were “experiencing some level of mental health concerns and that number has risen” since COVID caused school closings and disrupted academic schedules in schools that continued to offer in-person classes.

The stress of trying to help struggling children while navigating the challenges of working in an academic setting during the pandemic is creating a fraught atmosphere for the adults inside school buildings, as well, said Monica McHale-Small, a psychologist and former school superintendent, who testified during a joint hearing Tuesday before the House Education and Children and Youth committees.

Psychologists working in schools “are finding they are spending a lot of time supporting the teachers. The teachers are in a very heightened state of anxiety and they’ve had trauma over the past year,” McHale-Small said. “Most teachers don’t want to be remote. They are having adjustment issues. But they are also afraid of what might happen. There is a lot of stress in our schools right now,” McHale-Small said.

The state is planning to use a portion of its American Rescue Plan school funding to help address the mental health issues of students. Local schools are supposed to use a portion of their ARP funding to tackle mental health issues, as well, Smith said.

The U.S. Department of Education earlier this month approved the state’s plan for $1.6 billion in ARP school funding.

That state plan specifically mentions mental health as a priority concern: “Mental health and social-emotional well-being were by far the most mentioned priorities of stakeholders speaking to the needs of the most impacted students,” according to language in the state’s plan for using the ARP school funding. “Teachers were said to both need instruction in providing mental health supports and trauma-informed approaches for students, as well as personal support for their own mental health and well-being in the face of burnout,” according to PDE’s plan.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, Democratic chairman of the Education Committee, questioned how schools are supposed to use the federal dollars if local officials are reluctant to hire staff with temporary federal funds.

“That money’s going to run out at some point. and so, in a particular school setting, you may look and say the pandemic has laid this issue bare, we recognize we have these mental health needs that are perhaps unmet, perhaps they are exacerbated by the pandemic. We could use more mental health professionals, but those dollars are going to run out,” he said.

“We’re relying more and more on the classroom teachers, they wear so many hats, but what is the answer for using these dollars?” Longietti asked.

Smith said that the schools can spend some of the money on professional development or they can use the funding to contract outside mental health professionals without hiring them permanently.

The federal dollars can be spent through September 2024, she said.

“Let’s hope that the need for that intensity calms down and we go to a more normal year for our students” by 2024, Smith said.

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