Among the COVID-19 pandemic’s most pernicious aftershocks is its impact on student mental health. Isolated at home, disconnected from friends and suffering trauma from family members’ job losses or pandemic-related deaths, students are experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression.

About 44% of adolescents experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the pandemic, compared with 37% in 2019, according to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In schools, students’ struggles manifest as misbehavior, disengagement from classwork and spiraling absenteeism.

Recognizing this, districts across the country are using federal COVID relief aid to bring mental health professionals into schools and to expand social-emotional learning. Public schools have received nearly $190 billion in three waves of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds that can be used for a range of priorities, including school-based mental health supports.

But this unprecedented infusion of federal aid also creates a challenge: how to sustain new school staff positions when the funding expires at the end of 2024. Medicaid, the federal-state partnership that provides health care for millions of public school students, could be part of the solution — as long as states take the necessary steps to use it and federal agencies back them up.

Drawing on a database of more than 4,400 local spending plans compiled by the data-services firm Burbio and covering 70% of the nation’s students, FutureEd found that more than a third of the local education agencies have earmarked a total of $1.2 billion in ESSER funding for psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors. If the trend continues, the investment could reach more than $2 billion.

Local jurisdictions range from California’s Poway Unified School District, which is earmarking nearly $10 million of its $17 million ESSER III allotment for hiring social workers, psychologists, and counselors in its 38 schools, to the Hot Springs School District in Arkansas, which is spending $1.2 million of its $21 million allotment to employ therapists in some of its six schools.

Districts in nearly all states are making these investments, but the strategy is more popular in some states than others: 263 of the 583 California districts in the Burbio sample are planning to spend ESSER III funds on mental health professionals, compared with five of the 215 Arkansas districts in the sample.

Read the full article about student mental health by Phyllis W. Jordan and Anne Dwyer, and Bella DiMarco at The 74.