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Department of Education Publishes Guidance on Mental Health Impact of COVID-19

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On October 19, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (“OSERS”) released guidance regarding the ongoing effects of the pandemic on children’s psychological health. This new guidance, entitled, Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral and Mental Health, addresses seven key barriers to implementing mental health supports for children, adolescents, and young adults in early childhood through postsecondary education settings, including those with disabilities. To counter these barriers, the OSERS guide includes seven corresponding recommendations for educators looking to lessen the impact of COVID-19. Additionally, the guide suggests expanding the number of school social workers, counselors, nurses, and psychologists using American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding. Finally, the guidance highlights the importance of collaboration between school-based mental health providers and community agencies to ensure that mental health services are appropriately delivered to English learners and their families. 

The seven challenges OSERS identified and corresponding recommendations it made include the following:

  • Challenge No. 1: Rising mental health needs and disparities among children and student groups
    • Corresponding recommendation: Prioritize wellness for students, educators, and providers by conducting educator well-being screenings and providing daily opportunities for students and staff to engage in mindfulness and other stress-reducing activities.
  • Challenge No. 2: Perceived stigma is a barrier to access
    • Corresponding recommendation: Enhance mental health literacy, reduce the stigma attached to mental illness, and improve access to mental health services by modeling self-care for students and raising awareness about social, emotional, and behavioral needs. 
  • Challenge No. 3: Ineffective implementation of practices
    • Corresponding recommendation: Address social, emotional, and behavioral issues by implementing a multi-tiered support system. 
  • Challenge No. 4: Fragmented delivery systems
    • Corresponding recommendation: Collaborate with mental health agencies to establish an integrated framework of educational, social, emotional, and behavioral health support. 
  • Challenge No. 5: Policy and funding gaps
    • Corresponding recommendation: Investigate options for financing mental health services through other sources, such as advocacy groups, foundations, and/or community benefit investments. 
  • Challenge No. 6: Gaps in professional development and support
    • Corresponding recommendation: Enhance workforce capacity so that faculty and staff, administrators and aides can recognize and support children, adolescents, and young adults’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs through professional development and coaching. 
  • Challenge No. 7: Lack of access to usable data to guide implementation decisions
    • Corresponding recommendation: Use school, school district, and community data sources to promote equitable planning and program implementation.  

This update follows other recent OSERS guidance, including a series of questions and answers published in August of 2021, which underscored the importance of fulfilling all requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to the guidance from October 19, the August letter articulated challenges that Local Educational Agencies (“LEAs”) have faced while attempting to observe school law obligations and included resources for students, parents, educators, and communities looking to address such difficulties. 

Consistent with the Department’s guidance, LEAs should assess the adequacy and accessibility of mental health services they offer, paying particular attention to the unique impact of COVID-19 on social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health. 

If you have any questions about this Legal Update, or would like assistance reviewing your current policies and practices surrounding the provision of mental health services, please contact Attorney Corinne T. Duffy at 262-364-0261 or cduffy@buelowvetter.com; Attorney Alana M. Leffler at 262-364-0267 or aleffler@buelowvetter.com; or your Buelow Vetter attorney.

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