Deputy secretary of education visits Aurora Public Schools with eye on mental health efforts

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AURORAFrom telehealth visits to the playground, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten lauded Aurora Public Schools’ wraparound commitment to supporting students’ mental health needs with the federal pandemic relief funding it received last year.

Marten visited several schools in Aurora Public Schools Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as others across the metro area, as part of a nationwide tour exploring how school districts have used funding from the American Rescue Plan.

The American Rescue Plan included $130 billion to support pandemic recovery efforts in public schools. APS received an allotment of $77 million, which it will be using over the next three years for academic support for students, infrastructure upgrades and programs addressing students’ mental health and social-emotional needs.

In Colorado, Marten and her delegation visited several school districts in the Denver metro area. At APS, she went to Virginia Court Elementary, Rangeview High School and Clyde Miller P-8, where on Wednesday morning she received a demonstration on two of the specific programs APS invested in with APR funding: Hazel Health and Playworks.

In Colorado, the tour was specifically focused on how school districts are supporting student mental health in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month in May. Youth mental health has been a significant focus in Colorado throughout the pandemic, with school districts and the state legislature devoting millions of dollars to improving access to services that advocates say are badly needed by the state’s young people.

Hazel Health is an online mental health platform that the district began partnering with at the beginning of the semester to provide free mental health visits to students. Through the platform, students in all grade levels can schedule virtual visits with a mental health provider licensed in Colorado.

The partnership is designed to help bridge the gap for local mental health services, which can have long wait times.

Clyde Miller principal Kelly Forrest and a group of counselors led Marten through a demonstration of how the service worked Wednesday, and spoke briefly by video call to one of the therapists at Hazel. Forrest said that students at her school have been using the platform and seem to be receptive to it.

Then they visited the school gym, where students were playing games led by a Playworks instructor. Playworks is a nonprofit that partners with school districts to help get students more physically active during recess and to build social-emotional skills. The organization is partnering with 31 schools in APS, which is largely funded by federal pandemic relief money.

During the pandemic “kids have kind of forgotten how to play together, especially in large groups,” Playworks Colorado executive director Andrea Woolley told The Sentinel in an earlier interview.

The organization has trained employees that it sends into partnering schools to organize games during recess. Playworks games focus on getting every kid on the playground to play and are designed to help build student’s skills in teamwork and conflict resolution and reduce bullying.

APS superintendent Rico Munn said that since partnering with Playworks at the beginning of the school year, behavioral issues from students after lunch and recess have had a marked decline. That’s when the majority of conflicts take place, as some students struggle to go from an unstructured environment back into a structured one.

Marten praised APS and the other districts in Colorado for the work they were doing to be proactive about supporting students’ well-being. She said she was particularly impressed to see how many partnerships there are in Colorado between school districts, community groups and public health organizations.

“To see the whole community approach Colorado has taken was worth the trip,” she said. “I’m glad I went to this state.”

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