By Keith Perrigan
Recently, considerable attention has been paid to declining student achievement in Virginia since 2019. Just enter any combination of “Virginia”, “NAEP”, “SOL”, “cut scores”, “higher expectations” , etc. , and a plethora of news articles, editorials, and reports will fill your screen.
Well Named. Ensuring that our current students recover academically from the effects of the pandemic and other factors is critical to their personal destinies and the collective future success of our community. The warning siren has sounded and school divisions across the Commonwealth and the nation are responding in earnest to the evolving school crisis.
However, we face another crisis that receives far less attention and could be potentially more devastating: student mental health. The nonpartisan research arm of the Virginia General Assembly, the Joint Audit and Legislative Review Commission (JLARC), released a major new study this week providing a much-needed voice to this silent crisis.
According to the JLARC study, out of 15 domains considered, student behavior problems were ranked as the most serious. More than half of middle school students and two-thirds of high school students are nervous, anxious or nervous. Ten percent of middle school students and 13% of high school students said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. A worrying number also said they had tried it.
COVID-19 obviously had an impact on these alarming statistics, but pre-pandemic changes in authorized billable services covered by Medicaid prevented many students from receiving much-needed mental health support.
This week alone, more than half of school divisions in Southwest Virginia were notified that their community mental health provider was ending their partnership effective December 12, 2022. This sudden and unexpected change is partly due difficulty receiving Medicaid reimbursements due to changes at the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services. This will greatly intensify the problem in the poorest region of Virginia.
Unfortunately, there is another sneaky factor that has a quiet impact on student academic performance and mental health: truancy. One in five pupils across the Commonwealth were chronically absent (defined as missing 18 days of school or more) last year.
If we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, we now have clear data that in-person learning and face-to-face interactions are critical to both student success and well-being.
Virginia has a partial solution to this problem, which is to account for chronic absenteeism in school accreditation. However, this is not enough for many families who remain disengaged.
Unfortunately, Virginia offers very little support to students whose parents do not ensure that they attend school regularly. The courts are already inundated with crime and mental health issues and cannot deal effectively with school absenteeism. Additionally, Virginia is one of 24 states that does not recognize educational neglect in its code. As a result, the Department of Social Services is also unable to support chronically absent students and is already overwhelmed with its current workload.
It goes without saying that if students are not in school, they are missing out on valuable education and suffering academically. However, chronically absent students also lack meals, behavioral support, mental health resources, and other important services that most schools now provide to students on a daily basis. The cold, hard data published in the JLARC report shows that we are in the midst of a crisis that the pandemic has exacerbated, and now is the time to act.
Fortunately, JLARC has published recommendations on how to deal with some of these issues. These recommendations include tentative authorization to allow psychologists from other fields to work in schools and to help school divisions partner with community health providers. These recommendations may be useful, but more needs to be done at the next session of the General Assembly.
Two simple changes that will help improve test scores and student mental health are providing chronically absent students with the support they need by adding “educational neglect” to the Virginia Code and providing additional resources to the DSS to support these families. The goal is not to be punitive, but to open doors for students who need support regarding school attendance that is not currently available.
Schools must continue to work hard to involve families, but chronic truancy is a community problem that will require a community solution. This is especially true in very poor communities where absenteeism is largely a factor in conditions created by poverty such as homelessness, transience, and lack of transportation or child care for siblings. younger.
Another change that could have an immediate impact is providing more flexibility in Medicaid billing to ensure community service boards can provide the mental health services our students need. School divisions have used federal COVID response funds to fill these gaps, but these one-time funds will soon run out.
There have also been proposals to add Medicaid navigators to the Virginia Department of Education to help schools better leverage federal resources to provide student health services. It is worth considering how these positions could provide technical guidance to schools, especially to very poor small schools in Virginia. The mental health of our students should not be negatively affected by bureaucratic red tape. Medicaid should be an advantage, not an obstacle.
The very future of Virginia hangs in the balance as we address the academic, behavioral, and mental health needs of our students. Talking about mental health and finding solutions is much less popular than talking about student success, and certainly much more difficult. However, we cannot significantly improve student achievement if we do not ensure that chronically absent students return to a school environment where their mental health and other needs are met. Virginia students deserve it, and the future success of our republic depends on it.
Keith Perrigan is Superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools and President of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools.
#Virginia #Student #Mental #Health #Warning #Siren #Virginia #Mercury