WASHINGTON — Citing the surge of student suicides in Las Vegas, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto on Tuesday urged two federal agencies to tap into a pot of $122.7 billion for schools in the recently passed coronavirus rescue plan to launch a coordinated effort to curb the alarming deaths.
Cortez Masto, D-Nev., wrote to Secretary Xavier Becerra of the Department of Health and Human Services and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to move quickly to stem the nationwide problem of student suicides that spiked after coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools last year.
In the April 6 letter, Cortez Masto said “it is imperative that both of your agencies work collaboratively to develop resources and guidelines to aid school districts in formulating reopening frameworks that will best equip them to support returning students.”
The senator sent the letter one day before a scheduled visit to Doris Hancock Elementary School in Las Vegas, where she attended classes as a child. Cortez Masto will hold a news conference with local school district leaders about reopening schools safely with COVID-19 testing.
Student suicides in Las Vegas garnered national attention when 18 teens died in 2020, doubling the number of such deaths the year before. All were in the Clark County School District.
Although the Clark County deaths stand out, tragedies have been reported in other states where school children largely were educated virtually during the pandemic last year due to building closures.
Cortez Masto told the Review-Journal in an earlier interview that virtual teaching allowed students to not only see their instructors, but also provided a window into homes of students that prompted stress by comparisons of students’ living conditions. Students also lacked interaction with peers in a school setting.
President Joe Biden made opening schools a priority, but critics say the administration needs to work faster to reopen facilities and provide mental health counseling and guidance to students, particularly those who have fallen behind.
In a March 3 letter to parents, Cardona addressed the impact of the pandemic on schools, students and parents, though he never mentioned the suicides that continue to occur in Washington, California, Arizona and Nevada, which has recorded five more deaths this year.
During his confirmation hearing, Cardona told Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., that he would focus on the problem as the administration planned to reopen schools.
“Let’s not lose this opportunity, post pandemic, to really redesign to make sure that the mental needs of our students is first and foremost,” Cardona told Rosen during a hearing held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
In a meeting with Becerra, before his confirmation, Cortez Masto told him that mental and behavioral health is a top priority for Nevada.
In her Tuesday letter, Cortez Masto asked Becerra and Cardona “for a bold, coordinated all-of-government response to help kids recover from these pandemic impacts and avert the long-term consequences that come with associated traumas, ranging from learning loss to self-harm and incarceration.”
She urged them to use the $122.7 billion in funds for schools approved by Congress and signed into law by Biden in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to finance an urgent nationwide plan.
“The challenge that lies ahead is ensuring that schools are able to effectively leverage every last dollar and flexibility made available under the American Rescue Plan,” she said.
Finding the money
Cortez Masto acknowledged the shortage of teachers, counselors and mental health professionals in school districts following the pandemic that left many out-of-work. But both the education and health and human services departments have a range of programs that could help students return to classrooms where counselors can help with mental and behavioral health.
The American Rescue Plan includes grants to support suicide prevention among youth, but it provides no direct funding.
Cortez Masto maintains the money can be tapped from the large fund set aside for schools, and other funding is available through federal assistance provided to state and local governments.
House Democrats are eyeing additional legislation that would provide school districts with grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Senate has yet to explore similar legislation.
Meanwhile, educators and counselors said virtual learning over the past year made it more difficult to spot warning signs among students who might be considering suicide, or even difficulty in adjusting.
Even before the pandemic, youth suicides continued to rise over the past decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the second leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 18, and the leading cause of death for those aged 13 to 15.
Cardona referenced that rise in mental health problems among teens in his confirmation hearing and told Rosen that a redesign of strategy to address the problem should include not only schools but communities with ancillary services for families.
“Schools are the hubs of our communities,” Cordona said.