K-12: Hochul aims to address students' worsening mental health, growing teacher shortage

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Echoing what educators and health professionals have been saying for years, Gov. Kathy Hochul is concerned about the worsening mental health of students and wants to help schools expand services to the many in need.

During her State of the State address on Wednesday, Hochul said New York needs to "help heal the wounds inflicted during the isolation of remote learning."

She also wants to tackle a shortage of teachers across the state, by speeding up paths to the classroom and trying to entice retirees to return to school. 

On mental health, Hochul is proposing that the state provide mental health grants to school districts, as well as matching grants to districts that use federal stimulus funds to address student trauma.

For crisis situations, she wants the state to expand its capacity to provide home-based services for families so they don't have to admit a child to a psychiatric hospital. The goal is to serve 2,640 families, double the current number. 

Even before the pandemic, educators across New York commonly said that students' mental health had become their primary concern. COVID-19 has only made things worse. Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned of a growing mental health crisis facing America's youth.

Hochul also promised a new initiative that will connect students from SUNY and CUNY with local nonprofits to help meet community needs, like mental health services and tutoring.

And she is creating a pilot program for high-needs schools to "create safe, positive, and supportive climates." Many school districts have started to tend to school climates — reviewing whether students of all backgrounds feel heard and supported.

Details and price tags will be part of Hochul's budget proposal, due in the coming days. A new state budget is due April 1.

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Addressing teacher shortages

First grade teacher Kathryn Zobrowski, center, leads students in an outdoor learning session at Woodglen Elementary School in New City in  November.

Hochul also wants to help schools address a worsening shortage of teachers and other key staff, like school psychologists, social workers and counselors.

"The role of a teacher is irreplaceable in a child’s life, and as the past two years have hammered home, they are irreplaceable in a parent’s life, too," she said. "As a

mother, I know this firsthand."

Hochul noted in plans that enrollment in teacher education programs in New York is down 53% since 2009 and that New York could need 180,000 new teachers over the next decade.

She is proposing that New York speed up the process for new teachers to get certification, provide alternate paths to the classroom for those switching from other professions, and help teacher assistants and paraprofessionals to become teachers.

She also wants to draw retired teachers and others back to work by waiving income limits for pension eligibility.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)

Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, supported Hochul's priorities for schools.

"Pledges to boost mental health supports and staffing levels mark a clear commitment to meeting the social-emotional needs of students," he said. "The governor also is heeding the pre-pandemic calls of educators to address staffing shortages in schools statewide and to diversify the education workforce by finding innovative ways to get more New Yorkers to take a look at teaching as a career."

Hochul confirmed, to no one's surprise, that she supports the continued distribution of unpaid "foundation aid" — the main form state aid to school districts. Last year, the Legislature reached a deal to pay out $4.2 billion in aid over three years that schools believed they were owed based on a state formula. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had disagreed, saying the state did not have to use the formula.

Paths to higher education

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)

Hochul also plans to help high schools provide college-level courses for more students. Doing so, she said, will help students to start working toward a degree while reducing any eventual debt.

Dia Bryant, executive director of The Education Trust–New York, a nonprofit that promotes educational equity, agreed that high level courses must be available to more students, particularly from low-income backgrounds.

"For far too long, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds have been denied the opportunity to participate in advanced and rigorous coursework that will put them on the path to their desired future after high school," Bryant said.

Regarding K-12 education, Hochul also proposed:

  • Bringing green energy — geothermal heating and cooling, solar power, green roofs, improved indoor air quality and ventilation — to hundreds of schools.
  • Providing state aid to help schools move to all electric school buses by 2035.
  • Enhancing the State Police's ability to track social media for credible criminal activity, including threats to schools.
  • Putting the Agriculture Department in charge of the school lunch program to better connect schools with local farmers and food production.
  • Continuing efforts to increase affordable broadband.

Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.