After of a mandate approved by the State Board of Education on Wednesday, public schools in Florida will have to provide students at least five hours of mental health instruction starting in sixth grade.
The new rule will require students to take courses aimed at helping them identify signs and symptoms of mental illness, find resources if they are battling with depression and teach them how to help peers who are struggling with a mental health disorder.
The five-hour minimum will be included in the curriculum for grades six through 12, but it remains unclear if the classes will begin in the upcoming academic year. The policy finalized Wednesday does not include an implementation date.
Despite the ambiguity, the district plans to move forward quickly, said Kyle Dresback, St. Johns County School District’s associate superintendent for student support services.
“By November we will plan to have it mapped out so we can get it out there for teachers and students,” Dresback said.
The district will submit its plan to the state for approval after that, he said.
“It’s a good thing. This needed to happen,” Dresback said. “More information on mental health is always a good thing.”
Under the new rule, school districts will be able to choose the types of classes children will be required to take, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters. The instruction includes courses about cyberbullying, suicide prevention and the impact of substance abuse.
When asked in late June if the department had done an analysis on whether the new five-hour instruction requirement would have an impact on time management for other required instruction, Etters didn’t comment.
The question that the St. Johns County School District needs to figure out is how to fit mental health training into the current curriculum.
“We are not quite sure about that yet,” Dresback said shortly after the vote. “Where do you add that five hours on? It will probably have to be a combination of school counselors, classroom instruction and some of our informational tools. We are not quite sure how it will end up.”
First lady Casey DeSantis, who was appointed as the Chair of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet, led the effort to implement the new rule.
“I thank the State Board of Education for their vote today to require every Florida public school to provide students in grades 6-12 with at least five hours of mental health instruction. This is an important step forward in supporting our kids and parents,” Casey DeSantis wrote on Twitter following the vote.
The St. Johns County School District already has some programs that talk about mental health and suicide prevention, Dresback said. But one of the classes, which is taught in conjunction with physical education classes and not all students attend those classes.
Dresback said that sixth-graders in traditional middle schools, which offer grades six through eight, receive some mental health training. But students attending K-8 schools don’t get as much, he said.
One focus of the mandate is addressing mental health issues early.
DeSantis wrote, “As I travel the state, I am hearing from many families and know that 50% of all mental illness cases begin by age 14, so we are being proactive in our commitment to provide our kids with the necessary tools to see them through their successes and challenges.”
Dresback said he supports the idea but said implementation of the mandate won’t be easy.
“In the next few weeks, we are going to have to sit down and map out what this looks like for every grade level,” Dresback said.
News Service of Florida contributed to this story.
Copyright (c) 2019, The St. Augustine Record. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.