Gaggle Speaks

Ideas, news, and advice for K-12 educators and administrators to help create safe learning environments.

Written by Susan Gentz
on February 12, 2024

The headlines keep pouring in. New data on the mental health of our students, and even our red furry friend, Elmo, checking in and getting an earful and eyeful of responses, with many being answers of hopelessness or despair. One answer summed it up by saying, “Elmo, we are not okay.

As more tragedies happen across districts and more data is found to show that the next generation is struggling with a mental health crisis, there is now great pressure on education leaders to ensure that there is an added emphasis on mental health for students.

Federal Funding

The fiscal cliff will be here all too soon, so it is imperative that leaders use the current opportunity to put an emphasis on mental health. TeenVogue interviewed several students from around the country on what mental health support they would like to see within the schools. Most notably, a student representative on their local school board stated that, “mental health needs may vary widely based on the conditions at individual schools and the backgrounds of their student bodies.” He advised that schools “listen to your students about what they need,” and to provide the space for such conversations.

Some solutions that students are looking for don’t have a large price tag on them, while access to mental health professionals certainly does. Former West Virginia, Governor Bob Wise, and CEO of All4Ed, stated early in the pandemic that ESSER I was for triage (understanding what was and wasn’t necessary with COVID-19 disrupting life as we knew it) ESSER II was for transition (getting students back to in-person learning and providing the tools to do it) and ESSER III should be used for transformation.

Transformation looks different from district to district. K-12 Dive reports that 2700 districts, “used ESSER funds for mental health supports, including hiring additional school counselors and school psychologists, and providing professional development for staff.” This figure is likely to be higher at the close of the ESSER III obligation period.

It is important to note that the United States Department of Education (USDE) has updated guidance to state that late liquidation is now possible for districts that apply for and are approved. The obligation date of September 30, 2024 remains in place; however, the obligation date which is typically 180 days from the obligation deadline has been extended to March 2026. Obligation refers to funds that are committed in contract form, while liquidation refers to funds that are sent out of the funding account for goods and/or services rendered.

This is huge for districts as they consider how to spend the remaining dollars from ESSER III. The late liquidation process will allow for districts to treat these last 8 months as a planning phase, almost like a typical federal grant. Districts should use these next several months to survey, talk to, and understand deeply what students are looking for when it comes to mental health support.


How Should the Remaining ESSER Fund be Used?

Along with the coming fiscal cliff, the education market is dealing with, and will continue to deal with in the next several years, many challenges. One of the biggest on district leaders' minds right now is chronic absenteeism.

In a recent report published by the American Enterprise Institute, the findings show that it will be at least 2030 before schools recover from the post-COVID chronic absenteeism challenge. The report shows that:

  • “Consistent attendance is key to student success, but post-pandemic attendance has been far from consistent. Nationwide, chronic absenteeism—the percentage of students missing at least 10 percent of a school year—surged from 15 percent in 2018 to 28 percent in 2022.”
  • “Falling in 33 of 39 states reporting data, chronic absenteeism rates improved in 2023 but still remained 75 percent higher than the pre-pandemic baseline.”
  • “Chronic absenteeism increased for all district types, but rates were highest in districts with low achievement and higher poverty, affecting over one in three students.”
  • “In 2022, 16 percent of Asian students and 24 percent of white students were chronically absent, compared to 36 percent of Hispanic students and 39 percent of black students.”
  • “The urgent need to recover from pandemic learning loss will be severely hampered by current rates of chronic absenteeism, making it the most pressing post-pandemic problem in public schools.”

There is a direct link between improved chronic absenteeism and offering adequate mental health support for students. The Healthy Schools Campaign reports that, “Research indicates that common health conditions resulting in missed school include asthma, influenza, diabetes, obesity and related illness, seizure disorders, mental health and anxiety and vision problems. This pattern may be either exacerbated or ameliorated by a variety of factors in the school environment.” A school that works to increase access to mental health services will see improved numbers when it comes to chronic absenteeism.

The Hechinger Report also sheds light on this issue, showing how the needs of students have changed post-pandemic stating, “Even before the pandemic began, more than 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Now, despite nearly all K-12 schools and colleges being open for in-person learning in the most recent school year, many students are still struggling: 

  • 70 percent of public schools reported that since the start of the pandemic, the percentage of students who sought mental health services increased, according to an April survey from the Institute of Education Sciences.
  • The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory warning of a youth mental health crisis in December 2021, following a declaration earlier that fall of a “national emergency in child and adolescent mental health” by a coalition of pediatric groups.”
If districts want to address chronic absenteeism and have any chance of getting the levels back down to pre-COVID numbers before 2030, mental health for students must be a priority.

These students will soon be entering the workforce and the next time Elmo checks in, if we use these funds correctly, we have the opportunity to have much more joyful responses as a whole.

Want to learn more about how districts can utilize ESSER funds for mental health services and enhance their current funding strategy?

Join Our Webinar: Funding Sources Available for Mental Health


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