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Perspective | In a remote learning world, mental health access for students requires advocacy

Telehealth and remote learning. These are hot topics in school districts across the nation that require a steep learning curve as North Carolina moves through the fourth week of COVID-19 school closures. Telehealth, a topic I shied away from not so long ago, has become an inevitable subject for me and my school psychology colleagues.

Two weeks ago, I had never heard of E-rate or thought about broadband access in Edgecombe County, my father’s birthplace. Now, I’m learning and wondering how people in rural communities and in homes without adequate internet access will weather this pandemic in a remote learning world. What will access to mental or behavioral health look like for students?

As far back as 2006, millions in non-recurring funding was allocated by the North Carolina General Assembly to support 21st century learning, and in 2020, we continue to have pockets in rural areas without access to reliable internet service. Limited broadband availability during a time when school is closed shuts out children. Up to this point in my profession, there have been many challenges in equitably serving students with disabilities and in serving some of our rural communities who have less access than other parts of the state. With the onset of COVID-19, these students are once again in a position of needing advocacy to support their educational needs. 

School psychologists everywhere know the value of a face-to-face presence when we’re working with children. Observations of body language, facial expressions, and their attention to topics are just some of the ways we gather information to understand and help them. Face-to-face connections can be nuanced in a variety of ways — even young children communicate with their eyes. Hallway conversations, sitting on the floor while rolling a ball, and outside walks simply cannot be done virtually.

My colleagues and I have learned that adaptability is key for serving students and schools, but also to survive in an evolving profession that currently has a nationwide workforce shortage — one that is even more pronounced in North Carolina. Our students need us to support models of telehealth that meet their needs, and our training in counseling methods and in program evaluation is suited to meet this challenge.

Even with inevitable changes, the reality of unintended consequences must be considered, especially when children’s social emotional well-being and safety is at stake. While we’re able to serve all students, the population of children served very frequently by school psychologists are students with disabilities and those with significant mental health needs, pre-K through age 22. The needs of this diverse population of children are characterized by a thousand different scenarios, often very specialized. Hands-on learning is important, and for some students, assistive technology is essential for communication. 

We may be working with a child with Down syndrome learning how to make friends, an eighth-grader learning anger control, a student with an autism spectrum disorder learning to reduce anxiety, and more. The confidential nature of our work and the individual needs within this group of students will likely present challenges with the delivery of telehealth. 

Learning life skills while navigating telehealth during a global pandemic is a huge shift, requiring emotional resilience that has yet to be developed in many children. I’m genuinely concerned about how I will navigate this, but I will.  With great disparities in the support available to children across North Carolina, I’m also concerned for how students with disabilities and their families will navigate virtual learning and telehealth. We know from history and experience that these students require diligent advocacy from others to make sure they have access to resources for their social emotional learning and academic needs. 

The shift to virtual learning and telehealth is likely to move forward even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. On a national level, the National Association of School Psychologists has requested additional funding from the CARES Act to provide comprehensive services to students with disabilities. It is imperative that education advocates, schools, the corporate community, and elected officials ensure that vulnerable populations and those without access to broadband aren’t left behind when it comes to remote learning or access to mental health support. Investments in humanity require a deep commitment, but first requires recognition and an understanding of the lives these investments will reach.

Leigh Kokenes

Leigh Kokenes is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and the 2019 National School Psychologist of the Year.