Students attend classes on the first day of school in the Cleveland School District, Monday, August 9, 2021. All students and staff were required to wear masks. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

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Mississippi public schools will have access to mental and health care services for students for free as soon as August, education officials announced Thursday. 

The Mississippi Department of Education approved a $17.6 million grant for telehealth and teletherapy services available within schools provided by the University of Mississippi Medical Center. 

The Department of Education initially planned to begin with a pilot program, but then decided to launch the program statewide instead. 

“The more we started finding out about (telehealth services), we really felt that if there was an organization or entity that could just launch this statewide and get more children access to it, then why not?” said Carey Wright, state superintendent of education.

The program is being funded by the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and will last from July 2022 through September 2024. The program will start serving its first schools at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.

The grant will cover laptops for video conferencing and specially equipped stethoscopes and otoscopes that transmit information to the doctors or nurse practitioners on the other end of the call. 

Healthcare providers will supply urgent care, mental health care, remote patient monitoring, and specialty consultations to children in any district across the state that has access to a school nurse.

“When you really look at the distribution of doctors in Mississippi, you have plenty in Jackson, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, and Biloxi, but you get out to (those rural counties) and you are really in a health care desert,” said Dr. John Gaudet, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and former president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Telehealth is a way to keep kids learning, keep kids engaged in school and keep from having to pull them out to drive 40 miles for an appointment that could’ve been accomplished rapidly and easily by telehealth.” 

The pandemic has also caused increasing mental health issues for children, which Wright says this program also aims to address. 

“Statewide, we need to do a really good job of training our teachers and leaders on the signs and symptoms of children and adults that are struggling from mental health and social-emotional issues, and this will give them the great platform to gain access (to treatment) through our school nurses,” said Wright. 

The grant specifically partners with the UMMC Center for Telehealth, which has been recognized nationally for excellence in telehealth. 

“Healthy children learn, and children that aren’t healthy don’t,” Wright said. “If we could provide a way to make sure that our children are healthy and, if need be, families are healthy or staff are healthy and make the access that much easier…then that’s one thing we can cross off the list and don’t have to worry about anymore.”

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Julia James is Mississippi Today's poverty and breaking news reporter. A native of Mandeville, Louisiana, James recently completed an investigative reporting internship with Mississippi Today. In that role, she closely covered the sprawling welfare scandal and public education. She will continue that work, as well as working closely with Mississippi Today’s breaking news team. James is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has been published in The New York Times, Mississippi Today, and Clarion Ledger.