Mental health has become more of a focus in K-12 education, as well as in higher education. This past year Western Colorado University increased its mental health staffing for students, and launched fundraising efforts to make mental health care more accessible and affordable. “Without the pandemic, the needs would not be at the crisis level they are in mental health right now,” said Superintendent Leslie Nichols. There is a rising awareness in all levels of education that social and emotional well-being is critical to students learning, Nichols said.
Nonetheless, the Gunnison Watershed School District anticipates having $1.1 million in federal COVID relief funds on hand in the upcoming school year. So, rather than direct that money at remedial learning, district leaders plan to spend it on mental health support for students. Specifically, that money will fund two secondary counselors and pay for contracted mental health services. Unlike most school districts in the state, Gunnison County schools opened for in-person learning in the fall of 2020. And they stayed open through the end of the spring semester. Consequently, Gunnison Watershed School District students have either stayed on track with state education standards or have not fallen behind to the same extent as students on the Front Range, many of whom were forced to study outside of classrooms for most of the 2020-2021 school year.
The pandemic and mental health may seem separate, but research conducted by the district and Gunnison County Juvenile Services showed that there have been gaps in school mental health services at a time when community-wide demand for those services has increased dramatically. Gunnison Valley Health reported in February that the number of emergency room admissions related to behavioral health increased 500% since the onset of the pandemic. School districts across Colorado have received billions in federal aid to help students recover from pandemic learning loss. But, for the Gunnison Watershed School District, there’s a catch: little learning loss occurred.
Mills sees Gunnison County Schools as a step ahead of those on the Front Range. Schools there, she said, are planning to use their third round of pandemic relief to support their base staff costs and pay increases. “I don’t know what they (Front Range school districts) are going to do in three years” when the federal aid runs out, Mills said. “Many rural districts that were able to do in-person (classes in 2020-2021) are doing the same thing we are, that the need is for mental health,” said Tia Mills, Gunnison Watershed School District business manager.
The Gunnison Watershed School District is one of several rural school districts in the state that plans to use much of the third round of federal coronavirus relief for schools to support mental health. “We’re understanding the depth of importance that kids need to be physically healthy and socially-emotionally healthy. Our mission is still to teach kids the ‘three R’s,’ but in order to be ready to learn, we need to have strong mental health,” she said.
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