A warning siren on Virginia students’ mental health

State report highlights some policy fixes that could help

November 14, 2022 12:02 am

John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond. (Mechelle Hankerson / Virginia Mercury)

By Keith Perrigan

Recently, a tremendous amount of attention has been paid to the decline in student achievement in Virginia since 2019. Simply enter any combination of “Virginia,” “NAEP,” “SOL,” “cut scores,” “higher expectations” and so on, and a plethora of news articles, op-eds and reports will fill your screen.

Rightly so. Ensuring our current students recover academically from the effects of the pandemic and other factors is critical to their personal destiny and our commonwealth’s collective future success. The warning siren has sounded, and school divisions across the commonwealth and the nation are responding in earnest to the academic crisis that has evolved.

However, we’re facing another crisis that is receiving far less attention and may be potentially more devastating: student mental health. The nonpartisan research arm of the Virginia General Assembly, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), released a major new study this week providing a much-needed voice to this silent crisis.

According to the JLARC study, of 15 areas considered, student behavior problems were rated the most serious. More than half of all middle school students and two-thirds of high school students are nervous, anxious or on edge. Ten percent of middle school students and 13% of high school students indicated they had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. A concerning number also reported attempting it.

COVID-19 obviously had an impact on these alarming statistics, but pre-pandemic changes in allowable billable services that Medicaid covers have prevented many students from receiving much-needed mental health support.

Just this week, more than half of school divisions in Southwest Virginia were notified that their community mental health provider was ending their partnership beginning Dec. 12, 2022. This sudden and unexpected change is partially due to difficulty in receiving reimbursements from Medicaid because of changes at the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services. It will significantly intensify the problem in Virginia’s highest-poverty region.

Unfortunately, there is another sneaky factor that is quietly impacting student academic performance and student mental health: absenteeism. One in every five students across the commonwealth was chronically absent (defined as missing 18 days of school or more) last year.

If we learned nothing else from the pandemic, we now have clear data that in-person learning and face-to-face interactions are key to both student achievement and student well-being.

Virginia has a partial solution to this issue, which is to account for chronic absenteeism in school accreditation. However, that is not enough for many families who remain disengaged.

Unfortunately, Virginia provides very little support to students whose parents don’t ensure they attend school regularly. The courts are already inundated with crime and mental health issues and can’t effectively deal with truancy. Additionally, Virginia is one of 24 states that doesn’t recognize educational neglect in its code. As a result, the Department of Social Services is unable to support chronically absent students either and is already overwhelmed with its current caseloads.

It goes without saying that if students aren’t at school, they miss valuable instruction and suffer academically. However, chronically absent students also miss out on meals, behavioral supports, mental health resources and other important services that most schools now provide to students daily. The cold, hard data released in the JLARC report shows that we are in the middle of a crisis that the pandemic has exacerbated, and now is the time to act.

Thankfully, JLARC released recommendations for how to deal with some of these issues. Those recommendations include allowing psychologists from other fields to be provisionally licensed to work in schools and assisting school divisions in making partnerships with community health providers. These recommendations may help, but more must be done during the upcoming General Assembly session.

Two simple changes that will help improve test scores and student mental health are to provide chronically absent students needed support by adding “educational neglect” to the Code of Virginia and to provide additional resources to DSS to support these families. The purpose for this is not to be punitive, but to open doors to students who need support regarding school attendance that isn’t currently available.

Schools must continue to work hard to engage families, but chronic absenteeism is a community issue that will require a community solution. This is especially true in high-poverty communities where absenteeism is largely a factor of conditions created by poverty such as homelessness, transience and lack of transportation or child care for younger siblings.

Another change that could have immediate impact is to provide more flexibility in Medicaid billing to ensure Community Service Boards can provide the mental health services our students need. School divisions have been using federal COVID response funds to fill those gaps, but those one-time monies will run out soon.

There have also been proposals to add Medicaid navigators to the Virginia Department of Education to help schools better leverage federal resources to provide health services to students. It’s worth considering how these positions could provide technical advice to schools, especially small, high-poverty schools in Virginia. The mental health of our students should not be negatively impacted because of bureaucratic red tape. Medicaid should be a benefit, not a barrier.

Virginia’s very future is at stake as we deal with the academic, behavioral and mental health needs of our students. Talking about mental health and developing solutions is much less popular than addressing student achievement, and certainly much harder. However, we can’t significantly improve student achievement if we don’t ensure that chronically absent students return to a school environment where their mental health and other needs are being met. Virginia’s students deserve it, and the successful future of our commonwealth depends on it.

Keith Perrigan is superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools.

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