The nation must make new commitments to respond to an unprecedented mental health crisis that has had particularly harsh effects on children and teens, who have faced rising rates of depression and anxiety amid pandemic isolation, President Joe Biden said Tuesday.
Biden’s first State of the Union Address came alongside a pledge to push for $1 billion in new federal funding to help schools hire mental health and student support professionals, building on the programs they have launched using COVID-19 recovery aid.
Citing concerns about youth isolation and declines in academic progress, he challenged Americans to aid schools in their pandemic recovery as volunteer tutors and mentors or by considering careers in education.
“Let’s take on mental health,” Biden said. “Especially among our children, whose lives and education have been turned upside down.”
Educators expressed concern about students’ mental health—and schools’ ability to address it—in the years leading up to the pandemic. But the isolation and uncertainty of remote learning, parental job loss, family health concerns, and national divisions have exacerbated the problem.
That led the U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to issue an advisory on youth mental health in December, calling the situation a “crisis.”
Biden’s speech and accompanying White House proposals outlined a set of actions, including several that involve schools:
- He called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make it easier for schools to seek Medicaid reimbursement for mental health services. This has been a priority of groups like AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
- The White House said the U.S. Department of Education will continue to support states and schools in using an unprecedented surge of pandemic aid provided through the American Rescue Plan to address students’ mental health needs.
- The White House plan said Biden will “work with Congress” to ensure health insurance plans cover the cost of virtual access to mental health services, an approach which is increasingly used in schools. And he pledged to create a working group to explore state-level barriers to telehealth coverage.
- A White House outline said Biden’s next budget will propose “dramatically expanding funding” for full-service community schools, about $400 million above its current $30 million funding level. Democratic lawmakers have made similar proposals since Biden took office. Community schools coordinate “wraparound supports,” like access to food pantries, family services, and mental health support.
- Biden called on Congress to rein in social media platforms, including efforts to ban “excessive data collection” and advertising targeted at child users, to place limits on the algorithms that determine what content is prioritized in their feeds, and to provide new funding for research on the effects of social media on children.
Asking Americans to lend a hand
Supporting students’ learning is a key part of supporting their well-being, Biden said.
In a fact sheet released in advance of the speech, the Biden administration said it would continue to encourage schools to spend relief funds to support “more individual and small group instruction, hire instructional and other critical staff, launch high-impact tutoring programs, provide high-quality after-school and summer learning and enrichment programs, and invest in other evidence-based strategies.”
But schools have already reported challenges with such efforts. Staffing is strained by a lack of substitute teachers and teacher quarantines, and groups like after-school providers have reported a shortage of volunteers.
“The American Rescue Plan gave schools money to hire teachers and help students make up for lost learning,” Biden said. “I urge every parent to make sure your school does just that. And we can all play a part—sign up to be a tutor or a mentor.”
What else Biden said about education in the State of the Union
What Biden said about infrastructure: “We’ll build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, begin to replace poisonous lead pipes—so every child—and every American—has clean water to drink at home and at school, provide affordable high-speed internet for every American—urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities.”
Why it matters to schools: A bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year provides $15 billion to replace major lead pipe lines. That bill, and the American Rescue Plan, also provided funding to expand broadband access, to help low-income families cover internet costs, and to close the “homework gap” for children without home internet access.
What Biden said about pre-K: “My plan doesn’t stop there. It also includes home and long-term care. More affordable housing. And pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old.”
Why it matters to schools: Biden has called on Congress to extend the expanded child tax credit, which expired in December and was used by some families to cover child care costs. Biden also unsuccessfully pushed for free universal prekindergarten through his Build Back Better plan, which failed to win adequate support in the Senate.
What Biden said about college costs: “Let’s increase Pell Grants and increase our historic support of [historically Black colleges and universities], and invest in what Jill—our First Lady who teaches full-time—calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges.”
Why it matters to schools: The Build Back Better plan would have also covered two years free college for all Americans, but some members of Congress have been skeptical about a plan that is not more narrowly targeted at low-income students. Biden may include some of his Build Back Better priorities in a separate legislative push.
What Biden said about COVID-19: “Our schools are open. Let’s keep it that way. Our kids need to be in school. And with 75 percent of adult Americans fully vaccinated and hospitalizations down by 77 percent, most Americans can remove their masks, return to work, stay in the classroom, and move forward safely.”
Why it matters to schools: Federal health officials gave schools in most of the country the green light to lift mask requirements in new guidance Friday. And the administration has said American Rescue Plan aid should give schools and public health officials the tools they need to address any future variants of COVID-19.
What Biden said about transgender rights: “As I said last year, especially to our younger transgender Americans, I will always have your back as your president, so you can be yourself and reach your God-given potential.”
Why it matters to schools: Biden’s Education Department has insisted that transgender students are protected under Title IX, even as states like Florida debate laws that would limit how topics like sexual orientation and gender identity can be discussed in schools and as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed his state to investigate gender-affirming healthcare as child abuse. Biden has also called on Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would include gender identity and sexual orientation alongside protected classes like race in the nation’s civil rights laws.