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Kentucky school districts to focus on the mental health of students

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 4:17 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Pediatricians have told us they have seen a hit to the mental health of their patients. Chances are, you’ve seen it in your own children.

It’s no secret the pandemic has taken a toll mentally on some of our youngest Kentuckians. As districts begin a new school year, leaders know anxiety is high for a lot of students.

For those districts, it’s why social and emotional learning is the newest subject being taught in hopes of improving mental health awareness in the classroom.

As students head back to the classroom for another school year, chances are there is a lot more on their minds than just learning.

“The pandemic was crazy for everyone, especially for students in the high school range, because I saw so many well-rounded kids struggle so hard with just motivation,” said Haley Thacker, Rockcastle County High School senior.

We sat down with 17-year-old Thacker and three other students from different schools to talk about learning in a pandemic. There was one thing they all said they didn’t like— the separation.

“To say the least, I was separated from my friends,” said Yoni.

“I didn’t get to play with my friends,” said Kerrigan.

“At least this is not just me that’s separated, it’s literally the entire school,” said Kaiden.

Like a lot students, they are ready to be back, but recognize it’s different. Thacker remembers what it was like last year going from virtual to in-person.

“I didn’t know what to expect and my anxiety level was a little higher that it normally is,” said Thacker.

It’s that anxiety that school districts like Rockcastle Co. are bracing for this semester. Teachers are preparing to welcome back 2,800 students, some of them for the first time in a long time.

“We have had 400 students we haven’t seen in a year and a half,” said Angie Payne, the county’s mental health coordinator.

Some of those students might have felt isolated and for Payne, that means putting their mental health first before they ever open a book.

“Our superintendent always says educate, feed and support, that’s our motto, but they may not necessarily come in that order, so the first thing we are going to have to do when we see our kids is support them,” said Payne.

Payne is aware of the toll that pandemic learning has taken on students.

“The anxiety is really, really high. A lot of kids, they don’t know how to deal with the anxiety because it’s so bad for them,” said Payne.

A grant along federal dollars is allowing her district to hire two more mental health advocates, invest in a social and emotional curriculum and be able to take mental health awareness from the classroom to the community.

“This has been a traumatic year, we already know this has been traumatic for kids and adults,” said Nancy Hutchinson, the executive director of the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation.

The KEDC is a support arm to the districts. They say they knew early on mental health would need to be a top priority both during and beyond the pandemic.

“The social and emotional piece has to come before any of the teaching and learning,” said Hutchinson.

To help districts combat those needs, the KEDC came up with a new plan. It created a team of certified professionals to help regionally in all eight co-ops.

It’s a multi-million dollar investment funded through the state that Hutchinson sees making a huge difference.

“One of the key elements is that they have a social and emotional learning coach and they are going to be working with adults and leaders in those school districts to come up with plans and ideas,” said Hutchinson.

In Fayette County there was already a push to put more mental health counselors in schools before COVID-19 and an even bigger push now to add more.

District wide, Fayette County has worked hard to have about one mental health professional for every 250 students.

“We want to make sure our students are just as mentally healthy as they are physically healthy,” said Shericka Smith.

From masks, to worrying about if they will have to go back to virtual learning, to family stress, coordinators like Smith and others recognize learning can’t happen when students are distracted.

“A lot of times we expect children to sit down and learn, but if they have something else on their mind learning is not really what’s important to them in that moment,” said Smith.

To find out what is on their mind, the district is adding a new universal questionnaire for students to better identify who may be struggling with things like anxiety and depression.

Another priority is eliminating barriers, which means creating more services in-house for students to meet with professionals if needed.

“We have multiple goals, but primarily it’s to fill the gap for some families. The co-pay that comes with seeking outside mental health services is exorbitant and out of their means,” said Raine Minichan.

At the end of the day the lesson for so many districts is about taking the stigma off asking for help and addressing mental health head-on like any other subject.

“While mental health, the term, can have a negative connotation, it’s actually our goal. We should all want to be mentally healthy,” said Minichan.

The state says it is planning to use its final $611 million from the American Rescue Plan to support full-time in-person learning.

The state plans on using this money to support the types of programs we are talking about with social and emotional learning to focus on mental health programs.

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