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Kids' mental health crisis is at a critical point, Education Secretary Cardona says


The Department of Education knows it has a big problem on its hands. Many children in America have been struggling with mental health, and the pandemic has made things much worse.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says schools need to make changes now to help students.

MIGUEL CARDONA: Before the pandemic, about 13% to 22% of school-age youth experienced some mental health challenge. Now researchers estimate that that number is up to 80%. Students have experienced a lot - not only isolation away from their peers, but sadly in many cases loss of work for family members or loss of life in their families. So our students are in great need right now.

DETROW: The Department of Education is releasing new guidance, out today, meant to give schools tips and tools to better help students. It also serves as a guide in part to how districts could use extra pandemic relief funding. It calls for many things, including hiring more specialized staff, like school social workers and psychologists, and even doing away with punishments like suspensions. Cardona tells NPR the document also flags school districts that are already taking a broader, better-integrated approach to addressing mental health.

CARDONA: I was in Kenton, Mich., a couple of weeks ago. I visited a high school that had three different campuses - 6,000 students total - very large high school campus. And each of the students in those high schools had at least one block during the day where the curriculum focused on social-emotional well-being. So this was a change from what they did prior to the pandemic. This is an example of a strategy that's structural, that impacts all students and is led by what we know works. And quite frankly, it's led by what we know students need.

I've visited states, and I've heard from students directly. And they're saying, you know, we're glad to be back. We're glad to be with our friends. But we've experienced a lot, and we need to address that. And those schools and those states and those districts that are doing that are the ones that are going to find the most success. The funding is there. This resource that we provided here at the Department of Education is really to lift up best practices and connect it to what we know works based on research in the field.

DETROW: This report flags the fact that staffing is an issue. It's an issue on so many fronts when it comes to education. But when it comes to support for mental health issues, that's a big challenge. We're about a month and a half into the school year. You know, you've mentioned that there is more federal money there. But you know so well how school budgets and planning works. How quickly could schools be able to take up these recommendations and get staff in place this far into the school year?

CARDONA: You know, the staffing is an area of focus that - we across the country need to make sure we're putting our best ideas on paper and sharing best practices. I visited University of Madison - Wisconsin, and I learned about a program, an accelerated program for master's students to get into the field of social work. And they intern those students in schools already. So what we're seeking and what we need in this country is innovative practices that connect not only our K-12 institutions but our higher ed institutions to make sure that we're preparing the workforce that we need in our schools, especially in those areas that are hard to fill - social workers, psychologists, bilingual education teachers, special education teachers. So there are programs and there are great ideas in this handbook that people are already doing. So let's learn from one another, and let's do what we need to do for our students.

DETROW: You are acutely aware of how much education policy is being weaponized right now. This document is pretty clear that remote schooling and online learning led to increased loneliness, depression, other mental health challenges for many students. I could see someone holding this up as evidence that the downsides of remote learning were worse than the safety upsides. What would you say?

CARDONA: I would disagree with that as a father, first of all. My own two children, I wanted to make sure that their health and safety is the priority for the district. And we know that there was a period where we were learning how COVID spread and we were learning the mitigation strategies. And when it was appropriate, we implemented the mitigation strategies, not only in the state where I was leading but across the country. And we know they work. And when we can follow the mitigation strategies, our students are safe. Now it's about making sure that they're not only physically safe but emotionally safe. And we have to restructure our schools. We have to implement strategies to address the social-emotional needs of our students. So I think we know the pandemic affected our students. But putting students in harm's way to me is no alternative to making sure that we're prepared to meet whatever their needs are - whether they're social-emotional, hunger. Whatever their needs are when they come back, we have to be prepared.

DETROW: Broadening this out a little bit, I live in Washington, D.C., so I get Virginia TV ads when I'm watching, you know, "Jeopardy" or whatever. And it is very clear watching that governor's race now that Republicans think it is politically advantageous to attack Democrats on education policy, whether that is masks or vaccine mandates in schools or how racism is discussed in the classroom or a range of other things. How much does this concern you?

CARDONA: We want to keep the politics out of this. This is for us. It's about making sure children have in-person learning that's safe for them and for their educators and making sure that we can sustain that. Following the science and making sure we're providing resources to the families and students that need it is the goal.

DETROW: You want to keep the politics out of it, but it is very clear whether you're watching school board meetings or these commercials that the politics is very well in it. And I ask that because if you read through this document, you talk about the big challenges - you know, structural, conversational, a whole range of things. When you're talking about students' mental health, it clearly seems like something you need parental buy-in to help with, right? I mean, how do you cut through all of this atmosphere and have those conversations with parents about how they can help their kids in this really challenging time?

CARDONA: Now, that's a really good question. I think educators across the country know that moving forward, engaging parents more is critically important. Look, when we required states to submit plans to receive the last third of the American Rescue Plan, we said they must focus on addressing the inequities that were made worse by the pandemic and they had to increase stakeholder engagement. And that means getting parents' voice in the conversation but also making sure we're communicating openly and being transparent about how we're supporting our students and with the input of parents. So to me, the political back-and-forth is more of a distraction. Educators know what to do. Effective educators engage parents, communicate with parents regularly and address the whole needs of the child. And they do that in partnership with parents.

DETROW: Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education - thanks so much for talking to NPR.

CARDONA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATB'S "LOST (THOUGHTS ORIGINAL MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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