Parents have spent the last two years dealing with lawmakers’ and school officials’ indecisions about school reopenings, a nightmare for many. Public officials have constantly alternated between remote and in-person learning, masking and unmasking, social distancing and not.
Now, many families are rejoicing as they see states lift their remaining COVID-19 restrictions. Getting their children caught up on two years’ worth of learning will be the only concern when they attempt to have a normal educational experience once again.
Or so one would assume.
A return to pre-COVID-19 conditions will not be enough to get American students on track when another major obstacle still plagues them: the youth mental health crisis.
There is no doubt the pandemic and many of the arbitrary policies made in response to it contributed to suffering. Children were not immune from mental grievances.
Locking youth populations down, increasing their screen time, and isolating them from their friends and teachers made them feel more stressed, clingy, fearful, helpless, and lonelier than ever before. As a result of these disruptions to their routine, every age group has seen a significant uptick in various mental health, speech, and developmental concerns.
In the first six months of the pandemic alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that hospital visits for mental health-related emergencies increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for adolescents ages 12 to 17. The agency found in a follow-up study that emergency room visits for attempted suicides also increased by 50.6% for teen girls and 39% for adolescents overall compared to the same period in 2019.
The situation is dire enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared it as a national emergency last October. Psychologists collectively fear for American children’s futures because these mental health problems are set to peak and persist well after the pandemic.
According to a congressional testimony made last September by Dr. Arthur C. Evans Jr. from the American Psychological Association, untreated mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic disorder will affect their ability to meaningfully engage in learning and function in adulthood.
Untreated mental health issues make it more difficult for students to learn and are highly correlated with chronic absenteeism, school failure, and school dropout, which can lead to possible unemployment, financial instability, or involvement with the juvenile and/or criminal justice system.
For parents and students who know this disarray all too well, they are desperate for answers now.
And if traditional public schools have already proven themselves to be unreliable in preventing students from falling so dangerously behind, how can parents also have faith in them to put students back in a good head space when they are partially responsible for triggering their trauma?
This severed relationship between families and schools is all the reason why lawmakers should empower parents to choose how and where their children learn now more than ever.
Luckily, state lawmakers across the U.S. have already answered the call to introduce legislation on their behalf. Ever since the pandemic exposed how public education has failed students on multiple fronts, lawmakers in 19 states created or expanded public and private school choice options in 2021. Many more are considering these opportunities this year.
The youth mental health crisis gives more urgency to the school choice movement. It must be emphasized as much as the need for improved educational outcomes.
Education savings accounts are a solution state lawmakers should consider to address all these factors because they allow parents to customize their child’s learning experience.
With an account, state officials deposit a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula into a private account that parents use to buy education products and services for their students. Parents can buy textbooks, pay private school tuition, and, critically, pay for education therapy services.
Parents of children with special needs have generally used these therapy services to help a child with special needs access therapies such as speech and occupational therapy treatments, but now, parents should be empowered to use the accounts for counseling services as well.
As lawmakers around the country consider these accounts, they should make sure that parents have the flexibility to meet a child’s unique needs, including their mental health needs. They can do this by ensuring there are also provisions that allow education savings account funds to be used for counseling.
K-12 students today are facing challenges related to learning losses, politicized curriculums, and an exacerbated mental health crisis on top of the standard challenges that come along with growing up. Although unique to their generation, they are not impossible to navigate through and heal from. Lawmakers can help by giving parents the ability to access whatever resources best allow their child to succeed in school and in life.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal