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Anchorage Assembly to weigh using $1M in federal relief to bolster mental health care in schools during pandemic

Anchorage School District building on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly will vote on whether to add mental health professionals to 10 to 12 additional schools in Anchorage in an effort to bolster mental health services for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resolution is being proposed by Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel, Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. If approved, it would allocate $1 million in federal CARES Act funds to pay for more therapists with master’s degrees in district schools for the 2020-21 school year.

“We know COVID is stressing everyone out and our students are no exception,” Zaletel said.

Right now, through a partnership with the nonprofit Volunteers for America Alaska, there are clinicians in four schools: Begich Middle School, Bartlett High School, East High School and Benny Benson Alternative High School.

Sonya Hunte, director of the Anchorage School District’s office of equity and compliance, said the district was already planning to expand the program, but the CARES Act funds would allow the district to provide even more services. Hunte said adding clinicians comes in addition to counselors and psychologists already in schools.

Hunte said in a survey last year, ASD principals identified mental health services as one of the district’s biggest needs. That’s magnified during the pandemic, she said.

“It’s a major need,” Hunte said.

Earlier this year, students across Alaska were pulled out of the classroom in response to the pandemic. While the Anchorage School District recently announced a plan to resume school in August, likely beginning with students in classrooms just two days a week until September, it could change.

There is uncertainty around education, mixed with potentially more stressful home environments, Zaletel said.

Hunte said the district has a help line for students and families: 907-742-HELP. During the pandemic, there has been an uptick in calls inquiring about mental health services, she said.

If approved, the money would be used to expand on a VOA Alaska program and include Providence Behavioral Health, which would help administer the program.

Clinicians could be added to Abbott Loop Elementary, Chester Valley Elementary, Kasuun Elementary, Lake Otis Elementary, Wendler Middle School, Muldoon Elementary, Northwood Elementary, Central Middle School, Clark Middle School, Romig Middle School, Tyson Elementary and West High School.

The schools are selected based on need, but Hunte said the idea is to make sure all students have access. Additionally, she said, the district hopes to expand the program over time.

“It’s a progression to eventually all of our schools being covered in the same way,” she said.

Zaletel said she would like to see the Assembly find sustainable funding to keep that level of mental health services in the school district beyond the pandemic.

How, exactly, the program would operate is dependent on whether the school year starts with in-person learning, said VOA Alaska president Sherrie Hinshaw. The plan is to be flexible so that if a student at a school without an on-site clinician wants to access mental health services, that student would still be able to.

If schools do end up starting without in-person instruction due to rising COVID-19 cases in Alaska and Anchorage, Hinshaw said clinicians would connect with students electronically.

Carolyn Hall, spokeswoman for Berkowitz, said there is no plan to amend the resolution prior to Tuesday’s meeting, and the administration expects it to pass.

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