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How local school districts are using emergency funding to handle rising mental health challenges

As kids struggle with mental health challenges in school after pandemic distance learning, educators across the nation are reporting an increase in anxiety, bullying, and violence among student populations.

For Brianna Garcia, a mother of two elementary school kids in Indio, she's doing her best to help her girls catch up. And that means tutors, along with a special focus on their social development and mental health.

"It's difficult. Everything is not back to normal," said Garcia. "We're supposed to act like things are back to normal, but they are not. These kids are falling behind."

Garcia is one of millions of parents across the nation helping their children catch up from the learning loss created by the pandemic.

"She should be reading at second grade level," said Garcia of her daughter, who is in second grade. "Right now, we are at almost kindergarten, first grade, so that part is difficult and causing a lot of anxiety, her not being able to be at the level of some of her friends." 

Learning loss has led to a severe growth stunt in academic skills. Reports show the pandemic wiped out up to 20 years of progress in math and reading test scores, with the most severe impact in communities of color, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the "nation's report card."

"The beginning of the pandemic -- 40% of black students -- they do not have really reliable internet access," said Niu Gao, an education policy specialist and researcher with Public Policy of California. "So as a result, those students do not receive any live instruction at all. And we also know that housing insecurity and food insecurity went up... It is inevitable then a test score decline will be bigger for students from marginalized communities."

And the decline is not just academic. Many are dealing with mental health challenges, bullying, and rising anxiety after not interacting with classmates for so long.

"We've definitely seen a collective trauma that our students have experienced; our community, our staff, our parents," said Lissette Santiago, the public information officer for Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD). "We've seen behaviors that we've never seen before, or if we've ever seen them, they've never been at this level."

Schools across the nation are dealing with mental health challenges, absenteeism, and higher rates of violence. A number of parents in the valley have sent videos of school fights into the News Channel 3 newsroom, blaming rising anxiety and behavioral issues for the violence. 

Concerns about rising violence in schools prompted the Department of Homeland Security to survey students nationwide, revealing 30% of students reported feeling unhappy or depressed

To help -- both the federal and state governments have given a massive infusion of funds to school districts; more than $260 billion have been allocated across the nation. But there is relatively little government oversight on how most of the money is spent. 

New Channel 3's Angela Chen looked into each district and what they've spent the funds on so far.

For Palm Springs Unified School District (PSUSD), $171 million dollars has been allocated with 56% of those funds already spent or encumbered, according to the CA Department of Education and PSUSD. 

"We do have counselors at each of our campuses now. We also have roving support that can come out there and help with the students," said Peter VanBuskirk, the Director of Fiscal Services of Palm Springs Unified School District. "But we're also supporting the teachers to better assist and support the students as well. And it's a true challenge. These students have never been in this type of situation before.

PSUSD has spent millions on technology for kids, special curriculum, and more instructional support. It also has its own district mental health department -- the only one in Coachella Valley.

For Desert Sands Unified School District (DSUSD), $141.4 million dollars has been allocated, with 54% spent or encumbered. 

"We have hired for prevention intervention psychologists and mental health therapists," said Jordan Aquino, the assistant superintendent of business services of DSUSD. "We have some project facilitators. We've hired a couple of LVNs, 11 counselor. We've significantly expanded our summer school offerings."

The majority of DSUSD's spending has been on staffing, hiring 215 additional staff to address learning loss and mental health issues. The district has also spent significantly on technology, 20 air conditioned buses, tutoring, and more. 

For Coachella Valley Unified School District, $151 million dollars has been allocated with 42% spent or encumbered so far.

The district says there is now a wellness center on every campus and that they've hired Latino Commission counselors specifically for the student population.

"We knew coming back from the pandemic, our students would definitely need those mental health resources as well as their families because our Latino Commission counselors service our students, but also their immediate families for free," said Santiago.

All districts have hired more teachers to address learning loss and are urging worried parents to reach out and learn about the different resources campuses now have. As for the other half of the emergency funding that hasn't been spent yet, districts said they plan on using that money to maintain payroll for the new staff they've hired and for other initiatives in the next year.

For Garcia's 5th grader, she can't quite put her finger on it, but she knows something is off.

"At school it was really fun before Covid wasn’t a thing because you got to play with your friends," said Nailea. "But’s different because you can’t really interact with them. You can, but it’s different. I don’t know how it’s different, but you just get a different feeling with them."

And she, like so many students, will need adults to help them find what they lost during the pandemic.

Article Topic Follows: Education
learning loss
mental health

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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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