Most, if not all, of the research about how students are faring mentally and emotionally since the coronavirus pandemic began has shown that they are not doing well.
Students have said that depression, stress, and anxiety are the biggest barriers to their learning. Teachers have also noted that dealing with student behavioral and mental health issues has been the biggest barrier to addressing unfinished learning.
With such heightened concern over students’ mental health, some states and school districts are turning to telehealth providers to ensure that all students have access to the health care services they might need in order to thrive academically, mentally, and socially.
The Hawaii State Department of Education earlier this month announced a partnership with telehealth provider Hazel Health to expand access to mental health services for K-12 students.
“The pandemic has had unprecedented and far-reaching impacts on our K-12 learning, further exasperating the preexisting achievement gaps, deepening divides in educational opportunities, and creating emotional and mental health concerns for students and staff,” spokesperson Nanea Kalani said in a statement to Education Week.
Other states are also implementing telehealth this school year. For example, in Mississippi, the state department of education is partnering with the University of Mississippi Medical Center to provide telehealth services to all K-12 schools.
Some states were ahead of the curve. Texas, for instance, has had statewide telehealth services in schools since 2019, when the state legislature passed a bill that created the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium.
Reaching students in ‘mental health provider deserts’
Providing telehealth services in school ensures that every student has access to health care no matter where they live, according to experts who spoke to Education Week.
“One of the issues that we run into is that there may not be community resources close by that would be available for students and parents to address these longer term issues,” said Eric Sparks, the deputy executive director of the American School Counselor Association. “So telehealth could be a really good way to try to bridge that gap so that students are able to receive longer term support for mental health issues.”
In Mississippi, there are many areas that are considered “mental health provider deserts,” said Tearsanee Davis, the director of clinical programs and strategy for University of Mississippi Medical Center’s telehealth department.
Representatives for the education departments in Hawaii and Texas also mentioned that it’s challenging to match students with health care providers in remote areas.
When a student needs anything beyond what a school nurse or counselor can provide, those staff members will then set up a telehealth appointment after the parents have given permission. If a student needs long-term support, they’ll be referred to their primary care physician if they have one or the closest provider in their community.
Providing telehealth services in schools could also generate lower student absentee rates, experts said.
“The student doesn’t necessarily miss a day of school,” unless they have the flu or COVID or other communicable illnesses, said Scott Clements, state director of healthy schools and child nutrition in Mississippi’s education agency. “There are a lot of small things that can be taken care of during the telehealth visit. They miss a few minutes of class rather than missing a day.”
It’s also convenient for parents who won’t have to leave work to bring their child to urgent care if it can be taken care of during a telehealth visit at school, Clements said.
Telehealth services could also help in schools that don’t have staff available to deal with students’ mental or behavioral problems. Education Week has previously reported that school counselors and psychologists remain scarce even as needs rise.
But telehealth providers who spoke with Education Week said that these programs shouldn’t replace school-based behavioral health staff. The programs should show how necessary school-based health professionals are, Davis said.
“The school nurse is in the community. They already have a relationship with the parents. They already have a relationship with the students,” she said.
Funding beyond COVID dollars
The programs in Hawaii and Mississippi are funded by federal COVID relief funds, so it’s not yet clear what will happen after funding runs out in 2024.
Officials from both states are optimistic that they’ll be able to continue to provide the services as long as they are needed.
Hawaii has a reduced-cost agreement with Hazel Health after the initial two years and the state Health department plans to cover qualifying visits, Kalani said. Hawaii is also increasing its capacity to support students by hiring and retaining school-based mental health providers.
Kyle Brewer, the telehealth administrator for the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said the COVID relief money is “a jumping-off point for care in schools in the future.”
“This is helping us to get the technology out there, get the right people in place, get the nurses trained,” Brewer said. “As we get this thing up and running, we really have to start pushing for the sustainability of this. We want to increase that community awareness and show the value of this program to the students, to the schools, to insurance companies, to the state, to parents, to everyone.”