McNamara bills address mental health challenges in education because of COVID pandemic


STATE HOUSE — As schools begin to feel the mental health repercussions of COVID-19, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) has introduced two bills that focus on the unique educational challenges that the pandemic has generated.

The first bill (2022-H 6648) would direct that services provided by school social workers and certified school psychologists would be included as health care-related services eligible for federal Medicaid reimbursement.

“This issue is one of great importance since the pandemic has put tremendous pressure on families — particularly children,” said Representative McNamara, who chairs the House Education Committee. “Any help our communities can get in ensuring the presence of these mental health professionals and the essential services they provide would be a tremendous benefit to the families of Rhode Island.”

The bill is identical to legislation that Representative McNamara introduced last session, which passed the House but failed to move through the Senate before that chamber adjourned.

An estimated 13.7 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or behavioral health disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, behavioral health disorders can prevent children from developing coping and resiliency skills — abilities they need to help them learn, behave or handle their emotions. These skills are essential to healthy social development and help ensure children have a positive quality of life now and into adulthood. 

Studies have shown children spend approximately 49 percent of their days in a school setting and are six times more likely to get evidence-based treatment when offered in schools than in other community settings. By linking programs and supports that foster a comprehensive school mental health system, states can not only reduce the number of children experiencing anxiety, depression and behavioral health disorders, but also save a considerable amount in economic costs.

The second bill (2022-H 7062) would provide that in developing alternative-learning plans, consideration would be given to the unique difficulties and interruptions that many students are experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alternative learning plans include extended learning opportunities as independent study, private instruction, performing groups, internships, community service, apprenticeships, and online courses that are currently funded and available to the school department and the community

“COVID-19 significantly changed in-person learning and access to school-based services, which had a profound effect on the psychological well-being of our children,” said Representative McNamara. “This legislation would allow alternatives that may not be preferable under ordinary circumstances, such as extended breaks in study.”

This act would also authorize the granting of an extended absences from school which is not intended to be permanent, but is permitted because of the pandemic’s unique difficulties and interruptions.

Both bills have been referred to the House Education Committee.