School districts that started offering mental health services to their students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic are getting an infusion of cash from Bexar County’s federal pandemic relief.

Four districts — Edgewood, Northside, Somerset and Southside independent school districts — will receive the one-time funds to put more counselors on campus, evaluate students for mental health disorders and offer interventions for students believed to be at risk of hurting themselves or others.

The move comes amid increasing evidence of the pandemic’s toll on youth mental health, affecting not only students’ academic achievement but also their social well-being. The issue is closely tied to prevention of violence in schools.

“When I came to Commissioners Court in 2015, the attitude amongst superintendents around the state of Texas was that they did not want mental health clinicians in schools because they were afraid that parents would rebel and say, ‘I don’t want you telling me my kid is bipolar, or whatever diagnosis,'” said Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4).

Since then the political climate has only grown more strained as parents and elected officials are divided on what role public schools should play in students’ lives. But leaders from the four school districts told Bexar County commissioners Tuesday that the pandemic and the rise in school shootings had left them no choice but to try to address problems as they arise on campus.

“One of the big pushes that we are wanting to do is foster those immediate interventions, more of a holistic, case management type of intervention,” said Iveth Pacheco, who serves as Southside ISD’s social and emotional support coordinator.

Southside is also partnering with outside health care organizations to provide mental health evaluations and treatment to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to care. Pacheco said schools don’t have the ability to keep up the level of treatment many students need, but they can now step in when needed to try to avoid a crisis.

“At the school, it’s hard to provide that long-term type of therapeutical type of treatment, but we have the capability to identify and assess the students immediately when we’re seeing some of those social and emotional needs arising in our campus,” she said.

Texas leads the nation in prevalence of youth who don’t receive treatment after a major depressive episode, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.

Meanwhile, state leaders have redirected money away from the agencies that fund mental health treatment for the uninsured. San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, for example, has had to choose between turning away patients and taking on more cases than its staff can handle.

“I hope that our friends in the Legislature are listening and watching what we’re doing here at the local level,” said Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2).

Northside ISD, Bexar County’s largest school district, will get $4.5 million from the $389 million Bexar County received from the American Rescue Plan Act. Edgewood ISD will receive $1 million, Somerset ISD will receive $470,000, and Southside ISD will receive $690,000.

Each school district will be able to choose providers, programs, implementation and metrics for their programs.

“I’ll be real blunt — you’re dealing with sick kids,” said Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai, who asked the school districts to coordinate with the county’s juvenile justice system to provide mental health services to students in the jail.

“Those kids are in your school too, so let’s make sure that we’re taking care of everybody,” Sakai said.

The five-member Commissioners Court supported the funding unanimously Tuesday.

Commissioner Grant Moody (Pct. 3), the court’s lone conservative, asked the school districts to continue thinking of ways to work with parents to address mental health problems, as opposed to taking on a bigger role in students’ lives.

“We can put a lot of money into the school services, but we can never replace the millions of parents in Bexar County that are out there in those children’s lives every day … so just just keep that in mind as you go forward,” he said.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.