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Written by Dr. Kecia Ray
on March 30, 2020

State legislators have been introducing policy and funding for the past few years to help loosen restrictions to mental health access and create funds to help ensure more students have access to these services. It was certainly a priority before, but in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, this priority just rose to the top of the list—and this time on the national stage.

The president just signed into law the bipartisan CARES Act, which is a historic $2.2 trillion package. Embedded in this new act are multiple funding streams to ensure that mental health is a priority during this period of fear, anxiety, and isolation.

Funding Student Mental Health Under the CARES Act
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and teens may respond more strongly to the stress of a crisis, as well as those who have mental health conditions. The organization sheds light on the fact that even though schools may be closed, there is still a critical need to provide mental health services and ways to connect to teachers and peers during the prolonged school closure.

The vast focus of the CARES Act is on supporting the new working and learning from home environments many Americans were thrust into seemingly overnight. Here are the specific areas of the bill to support and fund these new lifestyle changes, with an emphasis on how to help students adjust to a new normal through mental health and suicide prevention provisions.

$425 Million for SAMHSA
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will receive $425 million from the CARES Act, with the following specifications:

  • SAMHSA will receive $50 million dedicated specifically to suicide prevention. Access to suicide prevention and mental health services will become more and more critical the longer our country is under restricted movement.
  • $250 million will be dedicated to Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs) in states that have them. The statute that created CCBHCs is working to improve the availability and quality of services to men, women, and children living with mental illness and substance use disorders. There is flexibility in this funding, and implementation will vary across states.
  • SAMHSA will get an additional $100 million in flexible funding to address mental health and substance use disorders, as well as providing resources to youth and the homeless during this time. This funding source is especially important for schools and students during the outbreak.

The CARES Act directs the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to consider ways to encourage the use of telecommunications systems, including for remote patient monitoring and other communications or monitoring services by clarifying guidance and conducting outreach. There is not a dedicated funding stream for this directive, but when approving plans from the state, remote patient monitoring will be a priority.

Bruce Schwartz, M.D., president of the American Psychiatric Association, stated that, “This stimulus bill will strengthen our ability to help the millions of Americans with existing mental illnesses or substance use disorders, and more with emerging mental health issues as the pandemic unfolds. This is a promising development in the nation’s efforts to fight the impact of COVID-19.”

$13.5 Billion for K-12 Education
Virtual education services, offerings, and curriculum are going to get the biggest boost in funding since the term “education technology” came into existence. Congress allocated $13.5 billion to K-12 education virtual offerings alone. For reference, Title IV-A—the block grant within the Every Student Succeeds Act specifically devoted to technology in K-12 education—is currently allocated $1.21 billion for the entire country. Under the CARES Act, the largest states in the county are estimated to get over $1 billion for just their state through this influx of funds.

Along with additional funding, the legislation also gives local education agencies (LEAs) the ability to request waivers for specific provisions under Title IV-A. This includes the ability to waive the requirement for a needs assessment to be conducted for any amount received over $30,000 (Section 4106(D)) as well as the cap of the use of 15% on technology for any LEA receiving $30,000 or more (Section 4109(b)). These waivers allow school districts to utilize Title IV-A funds more easily during this transition to distance learning.

States have a great deal of flexibility in how they use these new funds. For example, the bill also includes $3 billion for governors to allocate emergency support grants at their discretion to local educational agencies and institutions of higher education that have been most significantly impacted by COVID-19.

All of this funding is essentially a flexible block grant of a total of $16.5 billion for districts to use in the best way they see fit.

As the days at home wear on, the mental health of students continues to be of even more importance. It is essential that communities and schools come together during this pandemic to ensure the health and safety of students.

How and When Do Distributions Happen?
Under the CARES Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is required to approve and distribute the funds within a month of receiving state applications for funds. This bill was just signed into law less than a week ago, so there will be forthcoming guidance and applications from the United States Department of Education. Other agencies will follow similar timelines and create their own applications.

There are a lot of competing priorities right now, but it is obvious that the mental health of our students is of the utmost importance during this time of uncertainty. #AloneTogether is real and our schools still have the requirement to ensure the safety of our students. This funding will bring many opportunities to keep life running smoothly during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond. Now is the time to truly invest in the mental health of students.

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