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State education leaders working to ensure mental health resources for schools

State education leaders are working to make sure mental healthcare is accessible to students and families this upcoming school year.

This week, the state’s Department of Education and the Department of Children and Families presented a framework for how school districts can develop their mental health plans.

The obvious difference in mental healthcare needs this year is the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has become a challenge for school districts, particularly those that are still working to develop their reopening plans.

Mental health is more important than ever as we battle a pandemic, and that care needs to be accessible to everyone.

Summer vacation is almost over for Florida’s students, and the usual back-to-school anxiety and stress is compounded this year by COVID-19.

On Thursday, leaders from Florida’s Departments of Education, and children and families, talked about how districts need to develop a plan to provide mental health services, even if students are at home and not in the classroom.

“Regardless of what options our families decide to take this year, semester or whatever, that they all have equal access and continuum of services and mental health supports, and not only to they have that access, but they understand how to access those supports,” said FDOE Director of Student Support Services Andrew Weatherill.

Last year, the state put $75 million toward mental health funding. This year, it’s $100 million.

It also includes $5.5 million for youth mental health first aid. Plus, the state board of education passed a rule that every public school student, grades six through twelve, receive at least five hours of mental health instruction.

In a year plagued by COVID-19, Weatherill said it’s more important than ever to use those resources properly.

“We need to do more now than ever, to make sure that these resources are braided in such a way that again, remove those barriers that our students and families may be facing during this time,” said Weatherill.

According to Florida statues, school districts have to have six elements to their mental health plan.

First, a multi-tiered system that can assess, diagnose and treat mental health issues. Districts also have to have school-based, and community-based, mental and behavioral health staff.

If a student needs mental health services, they have to be provided within 15 days.

Also, districts need to include strategies to help at-risk students and an outline for early-identification

The main goal, and the challenge this year, is providing these services to all students, regardless of where they’re learning.

This year, the department is strongly encouraging that districts provide counseling and other support to students affected by the pandemic as they return to brick-and-mortal schools, plus have equal services for those students who will be learning from home.

State law required that school districts should submit their approved plans to the education commissioner by Aug. 1.