The pandemic forced students to learn from home with varying degrees of success. Lawmakers say standards for remote learning are at the top of their agenda this legislative session.

During the upcoming 2022 legislative session, Connecticut lawmakers intend to tackle two of the biggest pandemic-related issues impacting schools and children: a mental health crisis and remote learning standards.

With the two-year COVID-19 pandemic taking a massive toll on children’s mental health, lawmakers have been discussing for months how to address what experts agree is a health care crisis.

Legislators have hosted forums with behavioral health professionals, state officials and child experts to discuss how the children’s mental health crisis has led to overwhelmed pediatric emergency rooms. They have also examined which improvements to behavioral health services need to be made in school districts and surrounding communities throughout the state.

While leaders on the Education and Children’s committees say improving mental health and social-emotional resources for children will be one of the substantive issues they address during the session, they also plan to propose establishing remote learning standards and diversifying and retaining the teacher workforce in Connecticut.

Educators and state officials have expressed repeated concerns about the impact remote learning has had on students over the course of the pandemic. In a study released last winter of nine high schools in historically struggling districts, the RISE Network found that the percentage of students in danger of failing had doubled since the previous year.

These challenges with remote learning make it imperative to establish some standards for its use, lawmakers said.

Getting a ‘better handle’ on mental health care

During a press conference last month to discuss the crisis in children’s mental health and drug use in schools, Children’s Committee leaders vowed to push legislation to address drug use among adolescents this legislative session that would fully fund an “adolescent expert” or A-SBIRT program.

Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, co-chair of the Children’s Committee, said the program is similar to a pilot program she introduced in her district that trains adults on how to intervene if they think a child is using opioids and can help them detect early signs of drug use.

The program would be available to staff at schools, youth agencies, and local health districts.

“The bill will be a train-the-trainer model which will ultimately imbed trainers around the state who can then continue to train others, making it the most cost efficient and long-term way to introduce training programs that support children,” Linehan said in a statement. “It’s important that we not only supply our schools and youth organizations with the tools to treat drug overdoses, but with the proposer staffing and training to recognize drug use in its early stages and support young people before things worsen.”

Legislators have also described the mental health crisis among children as one of the most pressing priorities this session, and Linehan will be co-authoring what is expected to be an omnibus bill that ties in proposals ranging from recruitment and retention efforts in the field to resources in schools and hospitals.

The Education Committee is also planning to head into the session with mental health as a top priority.

Committee Co-chair Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said social-emotional learning is at “the top-level” for members of the committee, who want to better understand how the trauma children have experienced over the last two years has affected their social development.

“It’s not just in the school — the kids are only in school for about 7-8 hours. Those resources also have to be in the community,” McCrory said. “We have to work with those kids before they walk into the building. We’ve got to work on those families before they even walk into the building. So it’s important that those resources are provided in those communities that need it, in all communities.”

Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, a ranking member on the Education Committee, said finding ways to reduce school expulsions and suspensions remains a priority for lawmakers.

She added that reducing suspensions and expulsions is linked to better mental health supports because expanding or improving those resources “would be reducing the negative behavior that some students might be exhibiting.”

“The way I operate is to try to find the root cause of what’s going on and then direct services for early intervention, try our best to have those restorative practices available and to try to understand what’s going on,” McCarty said. “We can’t just expel our students, but we need to give support to the teachers.”

Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate, expects to see a variety of omnibus bills that will encapsulate different initiatives focused on children’s mental health — ranging from changing how mental health services are delivered to expanding school-based centers and increasing workforce development.

Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, wants lawmakers to create an oversight structure for the children’s mental health system in Connecticut. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

She also hopes lawmakers will create an oversight structure for the children’s mental health system in Connecticut — one that is “adequate, funded, staffed” to analyze how children and families access mental health care across the state.

“I think that the lack of a governance structure is undermining us, because there’s lots of state agencies, lots of private agencies doing great work,” Eagan said. “We could get further if we were better coordinated, had a better handle on the needs of our health system.”

She explained that pediatric offices need to be able to integrate behavioral health resources and assessments into their work, and mental health supports need to be integrated into schools “at a much greater level than they are right now.” Structural reform to support the development of a workforce dedicated to wellness and developmental supports for kids is also needed.

“This is a multi-year effort,” Eagan said. “This is not going to be one and done in the session.”

Remote learning and workforce

During the 2021 legislative session, the General Assembly passed legislation aimed at changing remote learning standards that would be in place by the next school year.

Recently, the state Department of Education discussed a draft for permanent remote learning standards that could go into effect for high school students next year, according to the CT Post. But the conversation is expected to continue throughout the session, with recommendations for legislation.

A remote learning commission has been tasked with providing recommendations to lawmakers.

During a recent state board of education meeting, Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker explained the purpose of developing standards is to guide the design of remote learning environments for students in grades 9-12.

“As required by the legislation, districts can start offering remote learning opportunities to students in grades 9-12 for the upcoming year based on standards that are developed,” she said. “So the first part of these standards is to get to the remote learning commission to get feedback.”

McCrory said considering recommendations from the remote learning commission will be one of the priorities for the Education Committee.

“I would like for the kids to stay in class. However, because of this variant, we know there’s a large number of staff who were not coming in, and that’s going to affect our children,” he said. “Personally, I believe either we are going to be all in or all out. I don’t think we should move toward a hybrid model like we did last year.”

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, sees “tremendous possibilities” for the state to have standards for remote learning but added that the standards should be focused on the type of remote learning being offered.

“We had many, many different models of remote learning: you had synchronous, all day long, you had asynchronous … we had videoing of lessons, etc.,” said Rabinowitz, who sits on the remote learning commission. “So what is it that we want remote learning to look like in Connecticut? I think that that is also going to be incredibly important.”

Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias, another member of the commission, said they are trying to decide which students should receive remote learning and establish guidelines for transitioning a student back to an in-person experience if remote learning is unsuccessful.

While there are no easy answers to those questions, Dias said, finding a targeted use for emergency situations is the best step forward. She said the commission has also been considering whether districts should have the flexibility to deploy remote learning for “inclement weather or emergency situations.”

“We have times where a water main breaks and the school has to be closed for three or four days,” she said, adding that these standards will be an “optional tool” for districts to use. “I think it is worthwhile for us to investigate, [but] not all districts need to do that.”

Another issue the education committee will be focusing on this session, McCrory said, is diversifying the state’s teaching population as well as finding resources to help retain teachers.

Dias explained the CEA is looking closely at what attracts people to and keeps them in the teaching profession, adding that they are considering whether growing the ranks of teachers can be achieved by better supporting educators financially and helping people transition into a teaching career from other professions.

Dias said CEA is also looking at caseloads for special education teachers, social workers, and school psychologists to see how the workforce needs to be expanded in those areas.

“We’re really trying to look at lots of different ways to think about those issues because we know that there’s a lot of complexity to it, and a little bit of nuance when you talk about legislation for sure,” she said. “So we’re trying to tackle it in a multitude of ways.”

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.