School officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they have hired additional social workers, one for each of the system’s 26 high schools, and plan to open wellness centers at all high schools this school year focused on supporting students’ mental health.
It comes as school systems across the county are grappling with concerns over students’ mental health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Wellness is the No. 1 issue facing public education today,” said Damon Monteleone, associate superintendent of wellbeing, learning and achievement in the Office of School Support and Wellbeing, during a Montgomery County Board of Education meeting Thursday.
He added, “We are driven by a belief that our schools must be sanctuaries of wellness for our students.”
Six of the county’s high schools already have comprehensive wellness centers on campus, but 19 others are getting versions of them this year, specifically focused on supporting mental health.
“Originally 10 schools were identified as priority schools for mental health service expansion, however, it became very clear that expanding services at all high schools was critical to addressing students needs,” Dr. Patricia Kapunan, the school system’s medical officer, told board members.
The new wellness spaces are called “Bridges to Wellness,” and, in the coming years, will be expanded to “full-fledged wellness centers” providing more comprehensive services in the coming years.
In the short-term, the “Bridges” centers will be up and running by October, said Mark Hodge, senior administrator for school health services for Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, which is partnering with the school system.
The centers will be staffed by a mental health clinician and a care-management professional who will be present five days a week.
As it stands now, over half the centers have hired staff, and Hodge said officials expect them all to be fully staffed by October, more than a month after the start of the school year.
The wellness centers were championed by Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro. Last spring, the council approved $8 million in funding to support the initiative.
Concerns about students’ mental health came to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, released earlier this year, found nearly one-third of students nationally reported poor mental health during the pandemic.
Virtual learning and coronavirus quarantines have led to other disruptions as well, including chronic absenteeism.
Data presented to the Montgomery County Board on Thursday showed about a quarter of Montgomery County Public Schools students, 37,000 students, were chronically absent during the last school year, meaning they missed at least 10% of the days for which they were enrolled.
In addition to the student wellness centers, the school system also said every high school is starting the year with its own dedicated social worker.
Stephanie Wallace, the school system’s social worker supervisor, told board members there are also six social workers stationed at the central office who can provide services to elementary and middle schools, as well as 15 social work interns who will work with the school system through a partnership with the University of Maryland.
During the meeting, board member Karla Silvestre said the board would hold a follow-up meeting in February to evaluate how the wellness-focused programs are working.
“We are doing a lot,” she said. “I think we’re doing fabulous things. What is working? What is not working? Where do we need to shift our resources?”
Board member Lynne Harris pushed the school system to engage with students about how the new wellness centers will operate.
“When I visited some schools last … week, I saw some of these newly created wellness spaces, but they were empty and blank — you know, office furniture, white walls, no people,” she said.