COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's time for students in Ohio to start heading back to classrooms, but mental health experts and educators worry high anxiety levels in kids and teens could make for a difficult transition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard, but Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick said it has impacted kids the most.
"There's an increase in anxiety, depressive symptoms, which all makes sense because the isolation and the quarantining for a child — their peers are their world and their extracurricular activities are their world," Fedrick said.
She is a licensed professional counselor with a Ph.D. in psychology. She has spent years working with children, teens and their parents.
"They are not only struggling with their own mental health concerns and how it's impacting them directly, but then they're also dealing with all of these additional stressors and tension in the home environment," she added.
From Feb. to March 2021, suspected suicide attempts jumped 50% for girls aged 12-17 compared to the same time frame in 2019, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
"Now with this transitioning back to school, that adds a whole different element, especially for children who struggle with social anxiety and anxieties surrounding school," the counselor said.
Not only has she seen an increase in mental illness symptoms in kids, but she has also seen a greater need for school support.
Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro agreed, citing discrepancies in care between children who rely on government assistance and those who do not.
"Even before the pandemic hit, we were seeing evidence of growing mental health needs for students and a gap between what those needs were and what schools were able to provide," DiMauro said. "The COVID pandemic just made that a lot worse."
Every student, regardless of their background and mental health needs, should have the support that they need to be successful in Ohio's schools, he added.
The Investing in Kids' Mental Health Now Act has been introduced by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and would give pediatric mental health care providers like Fedrick more resources to better help children.
The bill would provide increased Medicaid payments for pediatric mental, emotional and behavioral health services. It would also issue guidance to states on the best practices to expand services, including telehealth, and how to help children who are in crisis.
"Those kinds of innovative approaches to access resources through Medicaid, access to resources through existing relief dollars that have already been provided to states and the schools, all of that support is welcome," he said.
However, DiMauro said the shortage of school counselors also needs to be addressed.
"One of the challenges that local school districts are having in terms of spending those dollars to hire needed staff is that there is so much uncertainty around school funding at the state level," the educator added.
He is hoping Ohio lawmakers can fully implement the Fair School Funding Plan (FSFP), which was somewhat attempted to be put into place for fiscal year 2021-22. It was supposed to change how the state delegates funding for school districts.
"Some lawmakers slipped in the poison pill of privatization, adding hundreds of millions of state dollars in both direct funding and tax credits to subsidize families sending their children to private and charter schools," a release from Sept. 2021 by Policy Matters Ohio said. "Still, it’s better than the old practice of funding charters (most of which were run by for-profit operators in 2020) and scholarships to private schools (“vouchers”) out of local district’s budgets. The FSFP put an end to that."
The major problem with the way it is written in now, the organization said, is that in future years — instead of living up to the promise of the FSFP, "they’ll continue to weaken the public system by diverting increasing shares of public funding to private and for-profit entities."
Lawmakers didn’t fully fund FSFP and have not committed to ever fully funding it.
"[By committing to fully fund it, it] will provide a lot of security moving forward," DiMauro said. "Those federal dollars can serve as a down payment on a sustainable way to meet the needs of students and educators in our schools."
He says this would reduce inequities caused by the existing and typical formula which focuses too much on local property taxes. Public school districts use a combination of state funds, local property taxes, sometimes income taxes and federal funds.
"Beyond access to care, which is, of course, the first and foremost barrier, quality of care is the even bigger concern there," Fedrick said. "We have to think about — this is being able to afford the service."
Gov. Mike DeWine also created the Student Wellness and Success Fund, but DiMauro said that kind of funding is inconsistent, and since it doesn't exist in the funding formula — schools aren't able to count on those resources being there for the long term.
It is not only students who need mental health services. Teachers are leaving by the droves, and the vast majority of the rest are suffering from burnout, the educator added.
"Too many people are looking for opportunities to leave the profession early," he said. "And we have fewer people coming into the profession."
So what does this story come down to? What every education piece for the past year has come down to: legislation that would impact educators and limit their ability to teach.
"Unfortunately, some really positive efforts get overshadowed by misguided legislation," he said, referencing Portman and DeWine's helpful mental health efforts.
"We need to make sure that educators have respect and support in order to do their jobs," he added. "We can't be loading other things onto our plates, including a responsibility that, in addition to supporting the academic success of students, that they're serving as armed security guards at the same time."
DiMauro referenced House Bill 99, legislation covered extensively by News 5 that was signed into law by DeWine in June, which would allow a local school board to arm any school staff member (teachers, administrators, janitors, cafeteria workers, coaches, etc.) with 24 hours of training.
Previously, armed teachers would have to become peace officers with more than 700 hours on average of educational courses and firearm training. H.B. 99 made it significantly easier for adults in schools to carry guns, loosening the regulations by more than 95%.
For context, police get 60 hours of firearm training, with 46 of those hours being at a gun range. School resource officers get the same as police, but an additional 40 hours of training both inside and at the range.
Also, News 5 discovered the Republican lawmaker who drafted the training curriculum that schools would have to follow to allow teachers in Ohio to carry guns owns a gun training business that seemingly fits all the required steps in the bill.
While the bill was being heard in the Senate Veterans and Public Safety Committee, hundreds came to oppose the bill. Throughout the entire hearing process, more than 350 people submitted testimony against the bill, while about 19 testified in favor.
"But what [teachers] do want is for their voices to be heard as important education policy decisions are made," DiMauro said. "Unfortunately, with the gun bill, the Legislature and the governor didn't listen to the voice of teachers, and they didn't listen to the voice of police."
This is not to say that all educators think it would be a bad idea to arm staff, but the overwhelming majority have spoken out against it.
In fact, the majority of Northeast Ohio schools say this proposal isn't for them. From News 5 records, only a few schools across the state have decided or are leaning towards arming staff.
"We have new polling data from the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio (CDF) that has surveyed parents from across the state," he said. "Like 80% plus of parents in Ohio, believe that that is absolutely the right direction and those parents overwhelmingly by 90%, trust and support their children's teachers."
The study has not been released to the public yet, but CDF said it should be in the coming weeks.
At the end of the (school) day, all educators want is to take care of their students, help children succeed academically and provide them with the resources they need to be healthy — which includes providing mental health support.