This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
Gregg Strand, senior director of program advancement at Albion-based Starr Commonwealth, describes COVID-19-related mental health issues as a "trauma tsunami" – particularly for schoolchildren. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that COVID-19 has increased the incidence of children visiting emergency rooms for mental health issues by 31% for those aged 12 to 17, and by 24% for those aged 5 through 11.
"If you look at disrupted routines and social isolation, these are significant stressors on children," says Kyle Guerrant, deputy superintendent of finance and operations at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). "We continue to hear about challenges."
In August, MDE created the Education Equity Fund to help schools overcome some of those challenges. The fund was established through federal funding from last spring's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided states with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds and allowed them to use a portion of those funds to target their schools' specific needs. Michigan used that portion – over $37 million – of its $390 million in ESSER funding to establish the Education Equity Fund, which supports efforts to address students' mental health needs and to improve students' access to digital devices and internet service.
"Our hope in creating the Education Equity Fund was to provide additional support to our intermediate school districts," Guerrant says. "For Michigan, closing the technology gap and supporting social-emotional learning and children's mental health were our two greatest aims."
While all school districts and public school academies could apply for these funds starting in August 2020, priority for funding is determined by needs-based criteria that included having over 85% of students from families with income challenges, over 20% of students with disabilities, and over 10% of students being English learners.
When applying for Education Equity Fund dollars, school districts had to provide information about their technology and/or mental health needs, and provide a budget detailing how the funds would be used. In addition, the CARES Act required applicants to outline how they will provide equitable services to students and teachers in non-public schools located within their district boundary.
Building resilient schools
One of the 328 Michigan public school districts and charter schools receiving Education Equity Fund dollars is Lincoln Park Public Schools (LPPS). In June 2018, LPPS launched its Resilient Schools Project to help students overcome the impact of trauma. Divorce, a parent's death or imprisonment, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, or the daily experience of racism can have long-lasting physiological effects on children's growing brains. These traumatized children often act out or withdraw. They tend to develop mental health and behavioral issues and often fail academically. The district takes a trauma-informed approach to consider trauma's effects on students and help them build resilience through partnership with positive adult role models.
"The Resilient Schools Project helps us address the whole child, including a student's non-academic needs that must be met before learning can begin," says LPPS Superintendent Terry Dangerfield. Terry Dangerfield.
LPPS partners with Starr Commonwealth, which provides mental health services to the district, on the Resilient Schools Project. Starr provides individual therapy for kids and parents, family therapy, and comprehensive trauma assessment when underlying trauma is suspected.
However, all LPPS staff members also play a role in building and maintaining a trauma-informed and resilience-focused school culture. They are trained to recognize warning signs based on a child's behavior, create plans to help meet each child's specific needs, and share coping strategies that increase the child's success.
"Resilience and positive relationships can counteract the negative impact childhood traumatic experiences have on the brain," Dangerfield says. "Students who have learned to cope with trauma can almost always identify someone who was a source of resilience in their life, such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, or neighbor. Just like research demonstrates the negative impacts of trauma, it also identifies the positive impact of resilience in helping a child overcome trauma."
Dangerfield says LPPS has seen a "significant drop" in violent incidents since the program launched.
"All students have experienced trauma and resilience in different ways," he says. "The dollars invested in our program help them develop socially, emotionally, and academically by helping them eliminate barriers to learning. By investing in our program, we are doing our part as educators to help reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, drug use, crime and truancy, and more." Terry Dangerfield and Nicole Chubb.
At LPPS, teachers and staff see behavior not as good or bad, but as a form of communication that helps them better serve their students. Students who develop coping skills to address problems at school or home can make better life choices. For example, a teacher might help a student realize that they shake their leg when they get angry, and suggest taking a walk to release that energy in a positive way.
"Starr's approach is that trauma and toxic stress is a physical experience, both when it happens and when it comes back up as behavior," Strand says. "Starr focuses on sensory-based work with the physical reaction that's happening – for example, play therapy. It's a different approach."
Virtual learning "one more stressor"
Supporting school mental health services is just one of the Education Equity Fund's two priorities, but the second one – bridging the digital divide for students – is also linked to mental health. Being unable to complete online learning has been one more stressor for Michigan's children and parents since COVID-19 closed schools last spring.
"Having that disconnect, learning online away from teachers and friends, schools are seeing an increase in anxiety and depression across the board with kids, families, and communities," Strand says. "Schools are that one hub where you have the ability to address every single social, emotional, and academic need for kids."
Guerrant agrees, adding that many families have experienced the added barrier of not having the technology they need to access online learning.
"We know there were many communities in our state that didn't have the digital devices necessary, especially in lower northern Michigan and in more rural areas where actual access to the internet is a concern," Guerrant says. "The focus on the technology side has been on purchasing devices and connectivity, like hotspots that students can take home with them or access to an [internet service provider] for families."
The influx of ESSER dollars has helped schools and their students build resilience in multiple ways in the face of COVID-19. But Guerrant says the pandemic has also "shined a bright spotlight" on inequities in education, and that may result in long-term changes. He references State Superintendent Michael Rice's recent comment that the state's education system needs to "pivot to a new, better normal" after the pandemic passes.
"What do we need to do as educators to better support our students and families, to provide quality education that will look different after all is said and done with the pandemic?" Guerrant says. "Our students deserve better. We have time and opportunity right now with these larger federal investments to reshape how we provide education to our students."
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.
LPPS photos by Nick Hagen. Kyle Guerrant photo courtesy of State of Michigan.