A lot of competition exists for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. There are many questions on how best to use these funds to support students and educators. One area where the use of these funds is especially urgent is student mental health.
Pandemic-related mental health issues among students have resulted in a significant rise in widespread depression and anxiety. For more than a year, I have been encouraging educators to use their ESSER funds to support student mental health issues, and it is allowable to do so.
One of the allowable uses of ESSER funds in all three laws is: “Providing mental health services and supports, including through the implementation of evidence-based full-service community schools.”
For successful student learning to occur, educators need to address pandemic-related mental health issues among their students. Stress, anxiety, and/or depression among students are barriers to learning. Students are often unable to focus on learning when experiencing these types of mental health issues.
One way to support students’ mental health is to enter into contracts with mental health providers so that students have access to much-needed counseling. However, many districts are hesitant to hire counselors or other staff using ESSER funds because they are one-time funds. Once they run out (at the end of 2024), the district may not have the funding to continue to employ additional staff. However, contracts with mental health providers that have clear start and end dates can avoid the appearance of adding permanent staff and define the employment relationship upfront. If a counselor is a good fit for the district, they can see if there is a way to hire the counselor permanently by adjusting budgets to do so once the contract ends.
For districts with populations of multilingual learners (MLs, a.k.a. ELs), finding bilingual counselors is also essential but can be very difficult. Educators have expressed that finding a bilingual counselor is like finding a unicorn. And while it may be difficult, it is essential to find bilingual counselors because the feelings of isolation that lead to depression and anxiety worsen among ML students because of language barriers.
Unsure of what ESSER funding is? ESSER funding is the portion of funding in the three COVID-19 relief laws designated to help address educational issues arising from the pandemic. These three Coronavirus relief laws have provided over $190 billion in ESSER funding to states and districts. Currently, the deadline to spend ESSER funding is the end of 2024.
Student mental health issues must be a higher priority for academic learning success.