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Responding to the pandemic’s toll on student health, Atlanta’s public schools are launching a new program to give most of their schoolchildren remote access to doctors and therapists.
The telehealth services should be available to all students — from kindergarten through 12th grade — at 64 of the district’s 87 schools by the end of the school year after the Board of Education last week approved a contract with provider Hazel Health, the district said in a news release.
The contract can be renewed each year and costs $500,000. Hazel Health will bill families’ insurers for the virtual sessions, though district spokesperson Seth Coleman told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution no student will be turned away for lacking health coverage.
“It is imperative that our scholars have access to physical and mental health services,” APS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring said in a statement. “Removing these barriers is a game-changer for us because simply put, our scholars cannot reach their full academic potential if they are not well.”
The pandemic put enormous stress on students around the country as they grappled with job losses in their families and isolation as a result of school closures and lockdowns.
More than 4 in 10 U.S. high school students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless during the pandemic, according to government findings released in March. Since schools resumed in-person instruction, school officials and experts have reported an alarming rise in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems among kids.
A quarter of Atlanta public school children in grades 3 through 12 last year were at elevated or extremely elevated risk for developing an emotional or behavioral disorder, the district said. More than a third of students were chronically absent.
Two elementary schools in the district already offer telehealth services in partnership with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Hazel Health doctors, nurse practitioners, physician associates and locally licensed child therapists will be available from school and at home on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., the district said.
It plans to train staff and conduct outreach with the community about the program.