Fairfax Co. schools to offer free virtual mental health services to high schoolers

Virginia’s largest school system will be offering free virtual mental health services to all high school students.

Fairfax County Public Schools has partnered with Hazel Health, giving some 61,000 students access to the service, according to the county’s contract with the group. WTOP obtained the contract via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The service costs $15 per student per year, according to the contract. It will cost more than $686,000 for the first nine months. School board officials allocated $500,000 in the fiscal year 2023 budget for the service.

A pilot program was expected to launch by the beginning of January but was delayed. Access to Hazel Health’s services is expected to be available later this spring, although an exact date hasn’t yet been released.

A school system spokeswoman previously said the holdup was due to administrative delays in finalizing details with the vendor.

The partnership is the school system’s latest push to address student mental health. About 38% of eighth, 10th and 12th graders who responded to the Fairfax County Youth Survey in winter 2021 “reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row in the past year that they stopped doing some usual activities.”

Fairfax County and D.C. recently received grants from the Department of Education to help recruit and retain school-based mental health workers, who remain in high demand.

School-based mental health providers include psychologists, social workers and counselors.

Andrew Post, Hazel Health’s chief innovation officer, said the company works with more than 150 school districts serving about 4 million students. Hazel Health also offers services to students in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Students, Post said, are referred to the service via a parent or school-based mental health provider. Parental consent is required. Then, the student will be connected to a telehealth provider who is licensed in Virginia, Post said.

Sessions can happen either at home or in schools, and if needed, the provider can connect a student with someone to continue care in their community. Nationally, some 40% of students who use the service are referred to community-based care after several sessions, Post said. However, in the event of long waitlists, the Hazel Health provider will continue working with the student, he said.

It’s unclear whether FCPS plans to expand access to other students after the initial nine-month period. The contract period is listed through Aug. 31, 2027.

Hazel Health also has to comply with the county’s cybersecurity requirements, according to the contract.

School board member Abrar Omeish said last summer that the program had been in the works for more than a year. She said she assembled a student working group with representatives from every high school to seek feedback on the county’s plans.

Dr. Travis Gayles, who was the Montgomery County, Maryland, health officer during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, is Hazel Health’s chief health officer.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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