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An update from EdNC’s Liz Bell:

Even before the pandemic, students were struggling with mental health challenges. Ellen Essick, chief specialist of NC Healthy Schools at the Department of Public Instruction, shared 2019 data from the youth risk behavior survey with the Child Fatality Task Force Monday, including that 10% of high school students said they had attempted suicide in the prior year.

“I am fearful almost of seeing the results for these same questions in 2021, when our students haven’t been in the classroom,” Essick said, adding that the department will start collecting responses in August to the bi-annual survey. “… We really have to think about the impact of COVID on our students.”

Essick said the roles of school support personnel — social workers, counselors, nurses, and psychologists — are crucial in addressing students’ needs, from mental health issues like anxiety and depression to family issues to food insecurity. The task force passed a recommendation asking for recurring funding from the legislature to move North Carolina towards nationally recommended ratios for these roles.

For each of those positions, North Carolina does not meet ratios recommended by experts, Essick said. There is one school counselor for every 353 students across the state; the recommended ratio is one counselor for every 250 students. There is one nurse for every 1,007 students instead of every 750. There is one social worker for every 1,289 students instead of every 250. And there is one psychologist for every 1,798 students instead of every 550.

Those realities differ geographically. In Edgecombe County, for example, there is one social worker for every 2,000 students, said Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School and 2019 Principal of the Year.

“How can we possibly get ahead of mental health challenges and do early interventions?” Bristow-Smith said. He said in order to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide every child with a sound, basic education, classroom teachers are only part of the answer.

“We can’t do it with just great educators,” He said. “We have to recognize the mental health challenges our scholars face. They don’t exist in isolation from school.”

Bristow-Smith later added: “Consider all the situational issues that can contribute to trauma. Just in Edgecombe, in my county alone, we’ve had three 500-year floods in the last 20 years. We’ve not even talked about COVID. We don’t have a rising tide of mental health crises coming. We have a tsunami.”

Related to student mental health supports, the task force also passed recommendations for the creation of a firearm safety initiative and recurring funding for a coordinator to implement a 2015 suicide prevention strategic plan. Go here for a list of all the pending recommendations the group discussed.

These are the sources EdNC checks every day: The New York Times, The 74, Education Week, The NC Tribune, The Insider, The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, WUNC, WFAE, Brookings, Education Commission of the States, and DPI’s News. A cross section of diverse sources are checked weekly and monthly. If you have an article you think needs to be included, email [email protected].

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.

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