Even though the omicron surge may have peaked an increasing number of New Jersey schools are once again being forced to close their doors for a period of time and offer instruction remotely because of increased positive cases among students and teachers.

In response to these disruptions and ongoing pandemic-related stress, the state is funneling more money to school districts so they can expand mental health and counseling services.

The pandemic is debilitating

Cel Zalkind, the president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said all of the disruption caused by the pandemic has understandably created increased anxiety, depression and confusion.

“You think about the changed environment for children that basically happened overnight, remote learning, not being connected with their friends, working at home in a different way, I think that takes a toll on kids,” she said.

Harder on younger kids

Zalkind pointed out children of all ages are struggling with mental health issues but this is especially true for younger kids “because they’re not in the developmental stage where they have a full understanding, they don’t have the language to express their feelings.”

She said these youngsters are “just reacting to what’s happening, one day I’m here, the next day I’m somewhere else.”

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Zalkind said when children are in kindergarten, first or second grade, it can be difficult to "process if you’re feeling isolated or you’re not in the setting where you would interact with your friends, with other students, with your teacher, I do think there is a significant stress on children.

She noted how children learn social-emotional skills, interacting with other people, is just as important as academic learning, and the pandemic has made that more difficult.

Money being funneled to school districts

New Jersey lawmakers recently passed legislation that’s been signed by the governor to establish a grant program using federal funds to assist districts in training school-based mental health services providers, to expand the pipeline of high-quality trained providers and address the shortage of mental health professionals in school districts.

The money will be used for efforts to expand programs that train students attending graduate school to become school-based mental health service providers.

Another measure requires the School Based Youth Services Program to give priority to certain school districts in awarding grant money. The program provides mental health counseling, substance abuse education prevention, preventive health awareness including pregnancy prevention, learning support, healthy youth development and recreation activities

Gov. Phil Murphy is also expected to soon sign legislation that directs the Commissioner of Education, in consultation with the Division of Children and Families, to establish a Student Wellness Grant Program which will provide financial help to districts implementing school-based programs.

Zalkind said all of these programs are important.

“It’s critical to help children, it’s also critical to help teachers learn how to deal with children in their classroom, the issue of mental health services for children is a long-standing one, which the pandemic has certainly made worse.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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