Childhood experts work to minimize trauma to Tennessee kids

COVID, parental job losses put stressors on children

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

The pandemic and ongoing protests have put tremendous stress on families across Tennessee, and as schools begin plans to reopen, budget cuts could harm efforts to mitigate childhood trauma. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, is a way to measure abuse and neglect and its lasting effects from childhood into adulthood. Recent studies have shown that the pandemic could have negative effects on children’s physical and mental health, but as families struggle with economic issues and school closures, there’s a steady need for additional resources for mental health.  

“A lot of children that have been affected by this pandemic are going to have stress-related behaviors when they return to school and they’re going to need additional support,” said Jenn Croft, director of child well-being at the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY).

Jennifer Croft (Photo: Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth)
Jennifer Croft (Photo: Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth)

According to TCCY, school budget cuts are already affecting their school mental health services, but additional funding may come from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services through their School Based Mental Health Liaisons, if it survives the latest session. 

The CARES Act provided some relief to families with programs such as Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), which gave funds for meals, and Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB), although this is set to end July 31. Additional funds could come from the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), another COVID relief bill, but this has yet to pass. 

Penny Schwinn, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, leads the COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task force, a statewide group that includes state legislators and experts on children. 

Task Force intiatives include:

  • Empowering Local Implementation: Identify local infrastructure, relationships, and resources to promote supports for students and families.
  • Supporting Rapid Response for late summer and back-to-school 2020: Develop a set of action items that local communities may utilize over the summer and throughout the traditional back-to-school season to support the needs of children.
  • Determining Ongoing Support for Academic Year 2020-2021: Develop a set of action items that local communities may utilize to support the needs of children when school resumes in the fall of 2020.

“Children being out of school for such a long time has significant implications for a child’s wellbeing, and this poses a different kind of challenge for all of us, as communities and as a state. There is critical work ahead, and I am honored to convene the COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force in the coming weeks to focus state and local leaders on the wellbeing of Tennessee’s children,” said Schwinn in a statement on the Department of Education website

The taskforce will meet twice monthly and will collect data but will encourage preventative measures on a district-level. The taskforce is scheduled to produce a report on July 6 on the impact of school closures on critical services to children and focus on improving local infrastructure. 

Jonquil Newland, director of Kid Central TN, says the task force might be too little too late, because their efforts are concentrating on collecting data and not preventative measures.

“Kids are already falling through the cracks,” said Newland, who published an article for parents about returning to school amid a pandemic.

Additional resources for parents include guides by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In response to the recent protests and COVID-19, the organization published resources to help children process and mitigate possible trauma.

And each school district may look different, says Newland, due to the different rates of infection, with some districts having lower positive cases than others. 

Complicating existing difficulties is that Tennessee allows individual districts to make a lot of the decisions for their communities instead of using state-level policies, and budget cuts could greatly affect any possible programming. 

“There’s a very heavy cloud of ‘we don’t know what’s going on,’ and ‘we’re just going to do our best and move on,’” said Newland.

Jonquil Newland (Photo: LinkedIn)
Jonquil Newland (Photo: LinkedIn)

Tennessee’s struggling childcare system provides additional barriers for families who could end up home schooling children for the upcoming school year. 

And  rural areas could face the brunt of budget cuts due to limited access to resources and schools possibly requiring remote learning. 

“It almost requiring a wait-and-see process, but the longer you wait, it’s causing more damage and problems. It’s a really difficult to figure out the right way to address this,” said Kylie Burns, TCCY Communications and Policy Specialist.

Other programs include:

Other Tennessee programs include School Based Behavioral Health Liaisons, which provides face-to-face consultation with classroom teachers to enhance learning environments for children who have or are at-risk for Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED), behavior problems or substance use disorders. Liaisons also provide training and education for the classroom teacher and serves as a link between the school and the child’s family. Of Tennessee’s 95 counties, 35 are already working with  School Based Behavioral Health Liaisons.