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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Preston, Stonington school districts awarded state grants to add mental health workers

    Stonington and Preston school districts were among the first 20 districts in the state to receive competitive grants to hire additional mental health workers to address students’ continuing struggles to readjust after COVID-19 isolation.

    Gov. Ned Lamont announced $5 million was awarded to the first-round recipients for the 2023, 2024 and 2025 school years. Preston will receive $226,317, and Stonington $198,202 over the three-year period.

    The School Mental Health Workers Grant, administered by the state Department of Education, is funded with the state’s portion of federal American Rescue Plan Act money. Lamont said the $5 million is aimed at increasing the number of mental health workers in schools, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

    A second round will provide $15 million for mental health workers, and a third grant program will provide $8 million to summer camps and school-based summer programming for mental health support.

    Preston school officials welcomed the funding, and said the money will address continuing needs of students struggling to adjust to the return to school.

    Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said pending the grant request, he included a request in his preliminary 2023-24 budget to add a part-time social worker to the one full-time social worker for the two-school district.

    “It’s driven by our increased concern about mental health and wellness of students,” Seitsinger said, adding that it continues to be a nationwide issue. “We have seen some uptick in cases, where we need to support families and children.”

    Stonington school district Finance Director Alisha Stripling said the grant will cover the expense of a new social worker at West Vine Street School in full for the first two years, and 70% of the cost in the third year.

    “We are pleased to see the state recognizing the lasting implications that the pandemic had on our students and families,” Stripling wrote in an email to The Day, “and thrilled to be able to add this additional resource without increasing the district’s budget for the initial two-year period.”

    Seitsinger said Preston officials will meet with state education officials next week to learn about the conditions of the grant and whether Preston either could hire a part-time social worker directly or contract with an agency to provide the same level of service. Having a multi-year grant will allow Preston time “to create a program, settle in and support students.”

    School social workers will support students and families, make home visits and refer families to other resources for assistance, Seitsinger said.

    Seitsinger and Preston full-time school social worker Jessica Boucher said the district does not have the high chronic absenteeism other districts face. But the elementary and middle schools have seen what Seitsinger called “an uptick in dysregulation,” students struggling to maintain school and classroom routines and to stay focused.

    Boucher said the lack of school social skills is being seen at both the elementary and middle schools in Preston.

    “In middle school, kids are saying they don’t want to come to school, would rather stay home,” Boucher said. “They have trouble being motivated and coming to school.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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