Expansion for school-based health centers. A grant for minority teachers. Tax breaks for early childcare centers and wage supplements for their workers. A remote learning option for elementary schoolers (but no more hybrid teaching).
These are a few of the items passed into law on Tuesday in two bills focused on recruiting more mental health workers in schools, expanding teacher diversity and supporting early childcare centers and their workers.
The bills, which received broad bipartisan support, did raise concerns among some lawmakers regarding the parental role and consent in the care of children.
Senate Bill 1 includes grants to help schools hire mental health workers such as social workers, school psychologists and counselors. The budget includes $5 million for social workers, $15 million for a grant for school mental health workers and another $8 million for mental health services at schools.
The bill also allows people with education and experience working in a particular trade — such as manufacturing, construction or engineering — to apply for a permit to teach up to 20 hours per week of classes in schools. It offers a minority teacher grant of up to $20,000 each and requires a task force to analyze the effectiveness of programs designed to recruit minority teachers.
“We’ve been saying for years that we have a shortage of teachers of color in the state of Connecticut. We know that all the data in the world speaks to [the fact that] every child learns better when they are taught by a diverse teacher population,” State Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, said during a debate in the Senate last week.
During the debate in the House on Tuesday, State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, said minority teachers currently make up about 10 to 11 percent of all teachers in the state.
The bill also provides $10 million for the expansion of school-based health centers. State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said in a debate in the Senate last week that the budget had the resources to fund new health centers at 50 schools.
State Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, who voted against the bill, said during the House debate that the state needed to be cautious about placing mental health centers in schools as a way to ease the parental burden.
“I’m wary of when we create government programs to ease the burden of children, because children are not burdens,” said Fiorello.
But State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford said that the school-based health centers were there to help all children, that they were not mandatory and required consent from the parents for the children to use them. She said that she was proud that her district includes two school-based health centers.
“I can tell you, the parents, the students, everyone is so appreciative to have them in the schools,” said McCarty.
“The wave of the future”
Senate Bill 2 also will allow local boards of education to permit students in grades K-8 to learn remotely beginning in 2024-25. Last year, the state passed a law allowing high school students to attend school online in accordance with guidelines from the state Department of Education.
McCarty told CT Examiner that the remote learning option was a bipartisan proposal that came in response to the pandemic.
Sanchez said that he and McCarty visited a remote learning school in Massachusetts to learn more about the idea.
“I think that’s going to be the wave of the future, something we’re going to really have to look into,” said Sanchez.
Legislators Tammy Nuccio, R-Torrington, and Jay Case, R-Winchester, said they wanted the state Department of Education to consider allowing unvaccinated students to attend school via remote learning. A law passed last year prevents students who have not received childhood immunizations from attending a public or private school in the state, with some exemptions for students already enrolled in school.
Sanchez said he was hopeful that the task force currently studying remote learning would be able to offer recommendations on the remote learning school, and he said he believed every child deserves access to an education.
The current bill includes a caveat that boards of education are prohibited from having teachers teach both remotely and in-person at the same time — a process called “dual teaching,” or sometimes known as a “hybrid model.”
The bill will also allow Guilford to establish an Open Choice program with New Haven – bringing urban children to the suburban schools – and require the teaching of Asian American and Pacific Islander studies in K-12 schools beginning in the 2025-26 school year.
During the senate debate, State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said he felt that the bill was overly bureaucratic and that there were more direct ways to address the lack of childcare, such as increasing the student-teacher ratio. He introduced an amendment that would have eliminated the annual certification fees for teachers, which for a new teacher, he said, amounted to more than $800.
McCrory responded that the state was working on a grant to take away the cost of certification, and that taking away these costs was not currently in the budget. The amendment failed on party lines.
The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 33-2. It passed the House 138-10 on Tuesday.
“We might not know everything that would affect a child”
A second mental health bill which passed the House on Tuesday by a vote of 129-17 – and the Senate two weeks ago by a vote of 33-1 – aims to expand mental health service availability across geographic and socioeconomic lines with the establishment of a grant program to assist families from disadvantaged backgrounds afford mental health services and by expanding services provided by mobile crisis centers to 24 hours a day.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said during the earlier senate debate on the bill that the mobile crisis response has been very effective in the past.
“The critical thing is that behavioral health does not happen at a specific time of the day. So we want to have broader coverage across the state but also have the coverage 24/7 as well,” said Anwar.
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said the 24/7 mobile crisis services would provide families in his district an alternative to calling the police if a crisis happened late at night.
The grant program, which is designed to reach families whose children have faced poverty, adverse childhood experiences and discrimination, is designed to look at “the whole child” and consider the factors that might affect his or her mental well being, according to State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire.
“We might not know everything that would affect a child and could possibly determine their mental health,” she said.
Eligibility for the program will be determined by the state Department of Children and Families, with an eye toward “reducing racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic mental health disparities,” according to an analysis of the bill. The budget sets aside $2 million over two years for the grant.
Athletes, pediatricians, social media
The bill also requires the creation of a plan to provide mental health services for student athletes and the creation of a “family care coordinator” in each school district to act as a liaison between mental health providers and parents. The budget includes $2.5 million for a grant program in which the state will pay 50 percent of the salary of mental health providers who work in pediatric offices.
Also included is a UConn study that will examine the impact of social media usage on the mental health of teenagers, a provision that State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she strongly supported. Somers said she had spoken to a researcher in her district who had found a correlation between the development of social media and a rise in mental health issues.
“Our children are losing their childhoods because they don’t know how to deal with the things that they’re seeing on social media. And I think we need to really be aware of that,” Somers said during a debate on the bill. “I want to make sure when they’re on there and they’re on social media, that we are not robbing them of being kids and enjoying their childhood and have them more concerned with what someone’s saying about me on Snapchat or Instagram.”
Parental rights and consent
State Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, said in the debate in the House on Tuesday that she was in support of portions of the bill, including expanding access to telehealth and requiring that telehealth services be covered by insurance. But Dauphinais said she would not support the bill because she was concerned that some of the provisions would allow children to obtain mental health support without explicit parental consent.
Dauphinais proposed an amendment to the bill that would require that parents be notified and grant approval for a child to receive mental health services unless it was determined that notifying the parents would result in “family violence.”
Multiple Republicans spoke in favor of the amendment. State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, said she heard many times in public hearings that parents wanted to know more about what was happening with their children.
“Many parents want to be there for their child … but a lot of times they just feel shut out,” said Pavalock-D’Amato. “In many of these situations somebody else made the decision about what was right for their child.”
But Linehan said that the “family violence” exemption in the amendment only took into account physical harm to the child, and would not protect children who were suffering emotional abuse.
“It is nearly impossible to ascertain in one initial visit how a child feels if there is a threat within the family,” said Linehan.
The amendment ultimately failed 51-94 on party lines.
Republicans also argued against language in the bill that would limit a school’s ability to withhold recess as a form of punishment.
“We know that children need to run around, to get their energy out … but we also know that we’re taking tools out of the toolbox for teachers with regard to acting out and those sorts of things in schools,” Dauphinais. “I really believe that this should be a local decision.”
In response, Linehan told a story about her son, who she said was reprimanded for having behavioral issues, and came home telling her that he was “a bad boy” and that he “wanted to die.” She said she later found out that he was kept from going out to recess as a punishment.
“A child should not be kept from recess because they have too much energy,” said Linehan.
“Send a kid out to recess to get rid of that energy, and they are going to behave better in the classroom.”
“We’re asking more … but we’re not paying more”
Both bills include provisions to address the shortage in early childcare availability across the state. The Office of Early Childhood has estimated a shortage of 50,000 infant and toddler slots across Connecticut.
“True centers who are providing early childhood education are actually beginning the process of educating a child,” said State Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown, during the debate on Senate Bill 1. “It’s not just a warm body, if you will, that is making sure that your 2 or 3 or 4 year old is being properly fed and nourished and cared for and safe. There’s actually education that goes on there.”
Senate Bill 1 adds an additional 1,300 slots for infants and toddlers across the state, and includes grants to supplement wages for early childcare workers, supported by $20 million set aside in the state budget.
“There’s many communities, including my community, where there’s nine infant-toddler slots for every one hundred,” said Sanchez.
McCarty said that not having childcare available was having a negative impact on businesses. She pointed out that the Connecticut Business and Industry Association had spoken at a press conference at the capitol in support of increased funding for the childcare industry.
“We’re asking more and more every year of our teachers … but we’re not paying more,” said McCarty. “There’s an economic piece to this, for the benefit of all of our workforce. When we have our children and our toddlers cared for … our parents can then go to work.”
Senate Bill 2 includes additional help for early childcare, including allowing municipalities to reduce or eliminate property taxes for family child care homes, increases the number of children that childcare providers can care for from six to nine and includes a study to look at how the state can help childcare providers afford out-of-pocket medical costs.