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Iowa’s Department of Education announced Wednesday it’s committing $20 million of federal pandemic aid toward a new University of Iowa-based “Center for School Mental Health” that will, among other things, offer teacher training and needs assessments statewide.
The new Iowa Center for School Mental Health will work with the state Education Department to expand services of the UI College of Education’s Baker Teacher Leader Center — which describes itself as a “comprehensive professional development center and professional learning commons.”
The new mental health center, thanks to the UI programming already in place, will start working with K-12 schools in Iowa immediately — this summer — and throughout the 2021-22 school year, according to Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo.
“We're using the funds to boost it and help leverage greater capacity, so we're not starting from scratch,” Lebo said Wednesday during a news conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds. “We’re using these funds to prioritize what's already in place, so that everybody can benefit.”
The $20 million was provided under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. “The law provides for a portion of Iowa’s total (aid) to be used for state-level educational efforts to address urgent issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the governor’s office
The new center, meant to be a long-running enterprise, aims to expand training opportunities for student teachers and those already practicing and to provide additional professional development resources and services to support mental health needs in area schools.
Such services could include crisis response support; face-to-face and virtual teacher coaching; strategic planning guidance; and program evaluation of “social-emotional learning and positive behavioral interventions and supports implementation.”
It will allow researchers to investigate best practices and most effective methods for delivering services to students.
“What the mental health center has to offer is really going to be beyond what the department is offering for support,” Lebo said, mentioning specifically UI research. “The resources the university brings to the table are really going to be important to a sustainable future to reach all children.”
Reynolds said the mental health center — and its work supporting student well-being — should be seen in the context of Iowa’s efforts to get all students “future ready.”
The state’s Future Ready Iowa initiative aims to have 70 percent of workforce-aged Iowans some form of education or training beyond high school by 2025. And those efforts starts young, Reynolds said.
“From the earliest ages, children are eager to gain the knowledge and the training that will allow them to succeed,” she said. “And we give them a tremendous gift, when we recognize that their ability to flourish tomorrow is rooted in their education today. It's really that commitment to the future of school children of all ages that's the backdrop of today's announcement.”
She noted educators’ ability to meet the mental and behavioral health needs of K-12 students has grown increasingly important as the state and nation emerges from a pandemic that forced many children into isolation; deprived them of face-to-face learning; and imposed on some devastating losses and financial challenges and altered family dynamics.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the fall reported that beginning in April 2020 the proportion of mental health-related visits to emergency rooms among children aged 5-11 and 12-17 increased 24 percent and 31 percent, respectively, compared with 2019.
The findings implied, according to the CDC, that “monitoring indicators of children’s mental health, promoting coping and resilience, and expanding access to services to support children’s mental health are critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Although mental health needs in schools and school-age kids have been present for generations and increasingly prioritized, UI associate professor of special education Allison Bruhn affirmed the pandemic “really exacerbated the mental health issues across the continuum.”
“And so I think that the money and the investment in this is particularly timely,” Bruhn told The Gazette.
As a researcher, Bruhn cited findings after Hurricane Katrina that children developed long-term needs following the disaster.
“Students were exposed to the death of a family member or family members, food deprivation, social isolation, relocation, parents lost jobs,” she said. “All of those things that are super stressful and that lead to significant emotional and behavioral needs in children. And that persisted for a couple of years.”
And so while there is need now, Bruhn said, “We can anticipate that there could be longer-term effects from what we've seen over the course of the year.”
To that end, Bruhn said, this $20 million investment is just the beginning and leaders aim to pursue other funding avenues down the road for the center — which will involve collaboration from the UI colleges of education, medicine, public health and liberal arts and sciences.
“We have a lot of expertise across our college, as well as the university, and so we see this as an ongoing long-term effort,” she said, noting specific faculty will be associated with the center. “But it's also possible that we will be hiring people to come in for specific roles.”
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