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FRANKFORT – As students head back to the classroom for another school year, Kentucky lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Education met recently to discuss a front-burner issue for the Commonwealth, kids’ mental health.

When it came to Covid, the impact of disruptions, unpredictable routines, school closures, and masking, took a tremendous toll on students of all ages. In fact, early indicators already point to the relationship between the pandemic and increased mental-health problems. Nationally there was a 21% increase in children diagnosed with behavioral problems between 2019 and 2020. Another survey from the Kentucky Student Voice Team found 47% of students believe virtual learning brought a negative change to their life.

“Schools closed for years and toddlers were left masked for long periods. While those precautions were mandated in the name of safety, they came with great sacrifices and consequences. We’re now seeing how such sacrifices continue to disrupt and have an immeasurable impact on the education and wellness of our students,” said Representative Regina Huff, who co-chairs the committee. “At this point, every parent is thinking about it. This legislature will not keep our heads down. The obvious challenge is how to offer school-based services to students on a statewide scale.

“Schools closed for years and toddlers were left masked for long periods. While those precautions were taken in the name of safety, we’re now seeing how such sacrifices continue to linger and have a negative impact on children’s learning and wellness,” said Representative Regina Huff, who co-chairs the committee. “At this point, every parent is thinking about it. This legislature will not keep our heads down. The obvious challenge is how to offer school-based services to students on a statewide scale.”

Knowing the growing need for mental health services in the classroom, the legislature allocated additional funding to school districts during the most recent regular session, including $7.4 million in each year of the state budget for additional mental health counselors. The funds continue the work of the School Safety and Resiliency Act, which sought to add more school counselors and use trauma-informed approaches in the classroom.

“Clearly this is an issue our children are facing in the classroom and at home,” said Representative Bobby McCool, a retired educator. “I was proud to sponsor a bill excusing absences for students’ mental health this past spring and pleased to see it become law. While it serves as an essential first step in supporting students, we recognize it is just a first step.”

McCool’s measure, HB 44, allows a local school board to include excused absences for a student’s mental health in its attendance policies beginning this school year. Lawmakers also discussed the impact of the legislation and similar policies other states have passed, including an expanded number of excused absences with adequate safeguards. 

Committee members were pleased to hear how schools are using resources provided by the legislature to serve Kentucky’s youth. For instance, at Marion County High School, the Family Resource and Youth Services Center (FRYSC) sets aside $3,500 to help students who can’t afford co-pays or private pay for mental health services.

“Teachers and education leaders have always looked after student wellness and worked to get kids the help they need,” said Representative Kim Banta, a retired Northern Kentucky educator. “But we are beginning to see a more organized and collaborative approach. It’s exciting to see the innovative ways some districts invest in social and emotional health and equip young Kentuckians with the right tools and skills to handle what they are facing.”

Additionally, legislators dug into the state’s largest school system, Jefferson County (JCPS). One in seven Kentucky students attends a JCPS school and the district has more than 95,000 students enrolled. School leaders shared some progress made over the last few years, including a teacher residency program and a tuition-free college partnership, as well as ongoing challenges. However, problems still plague the district as a third of its students are also chronically absent—meaning they miss 10% or more school days in a year.

Like most districts across the nation, JCPS also faces a shortage in teachers. The district is currently operating with 200 fewer bus drivers and 300 fewer classroom teachers than usual. According to a survey from the largest teachers union in the country, the National Education Association (NEA), 76% of educators say student behavioral issues are a very serious or somewhat serious problem. In addition, the same survey poll found that 55% of educators are now ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.

For more information about the Interim Education Committee, visit the legislature's website legislature.ky.gov.

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