Jeremy Glauser: Utah needs urgent investment in K-12 special ed and mental health

(Seth Wenig | AP photo) Paraprofessional Jessica Wein helps Josh Nazzaro write numbers while attending class virtually from his home in Wharton, N.J., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. The pandemic is threatening to wipe out the educational progress made by many of the nation’s 7 million students with disabilities. That's according to advocates, who say the extended months of learning from home and erratic attempts to reopen schools are deepening a crisis that began with the switch to distance learning in March.

As the COVID-19 pandemic’s worst moments hopefully fade into memory, Utah is faced with a choice: Do we resume life as normal, or do we make some targeted adjustments?

As we consider this choice, I hope we’ll keep the future of Utah’s K-12 students in mind. The decisions — and investments — we choose to make or not in the near term will have major implications on the horizon.

One critical and often overlooked area of investment is K-12 special education. It’s been well documented that the pandemic created tragic disruption to the U.S. public education system. Some studies suggest that K-12 students lost the equivalent of at least 20% of the learning opportunities typically afforded them due to school closures and other pandemic disruptions.

These disruptions also put tremendous strain on the mental health of our students during a critical developmental period. All the literature points to the K-12 period as formative for the development of mental, social, and emotional resilience required to become a high-functioning adult. We must account for these missed developmental opportunities in order for our students to reach their full human potential.

Importantly, the negative impacts of events like COVID-19 almost always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable: those from lower-income households, racial or ethnic minorities, or children with disabilities. Without targeted and intentional interventions, our youth on the margins will fall even further behind and face severe consequences that follow them into adulthood.

In Utah and beyond, we must put a premium on protecting our most vulnerable from problems they did not create. As it relates to our students, this means investing as never before in special education and mental health services in our K-12 schools. Our youth have never needed more ubiquitous access to school psychology and mental health services, as well as speech, occupational, and physical therapy.

How do we provide these vital services? Without doubt, it will require a choice to prioritize disadvantaged students and allocate meaningful resources to their success. At the federal level, RAND Corporation has outlined some innovative ways to allocate dollars from the American Rescue Plan toward this worthy goal.

Utah is set to receive around $68 million in federal funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Relief Act (ESSER). Our schools can use these funds for a range of purposes designed to address COVID-19 impact on teaching and learning, including addressing mental health needs and providing resources and support for children with special needs. Utah districts should designate a meaningful portion of ESSER funds to special education and mental health initiatives.

These federal programs are vital, but we can’t rely solely on a national response to solve educational problems that too often sink or swim at the state and local levels. In Utah, we need to allocate some of the state’s budget surplus toward K-12 special education and mental health programs, as well. These dollars would be best used at the discretion of schools and districts who best understand the unique needs of their student populations.

At a minimum, investing in special education and mental health services would extend access to students who need it most. While the U.S. educational system has been strained for years by a shrinking pool of educators in general. The availability of qualified school therapists and counselors — as well as special education teachers and paraprofessionals — has been especially impacted.

Serendipitously, the pandemic revealed the benefits of blending online and in-person therapy, with 9 in 10 schools using at least some online special education services during the pandemic compared to only 1 in 3 before. This resourcefulness helped keep access in place and reduce what might have been an even bigger blow. Schools need the resources and flexibility to provide increased and uninterrupted access via any modality as COVID-19 wanes.

Right now, we’re making decisions — through our actions or inactions — that will impact our children and the future they build. Let’s keep a long view and not forget those who’ve been most impacted by the pandemic.

Jeremy Glauser

Jeremy Glauser is founder and CEO of eLuma Online Therapy, a Lehi-based education technology company focused on helping K-12 schools across the country transform how therapy and special education services are delivered.