How Atlanta schools are supporting teachers’ mental health using CARES Act dollars

Updated: Feb. 8, 2022 at 5:10 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Educators across the country say they are burned out.

According to a new survey released by the National Education Association, 55% of educators are ready to leave the profession, earlier than planned.

In an effort to support the well-being of teachers, Atlanta Public Schools has partnered with Emory University to launch a new service for its employees called Urgent Behavioral Health Response or UBHR.

“This was something totally new to me,” said Candence Jones, an eighth grade English teacher at John Lewis Invictus Academy.

After spending 25 years in the classroom, Candence Jones thought she’d seen it all. Then, the pandemic happened.

“To make sure our students are on grade level and didn’t lose too much, we have to work overtime. And that can be very stressful for not just the student, but for the teacher as well,” Jones added.

To that end, Atlanta Public Schools’ employee wellbeing coordinator wanted teachers to know that she heard them.

So she came up with an idea, but she wouldn’t be able to do it alone.

“We called and Emory answered the call, and they were able to provide,” said Nzinga Benton, Employee Wellbeing Coordinator at APS.

Thus, the partnership began with Emory providing 11 clinicians to support any APS employee who may be in need of urgent emotional or behavioral assistance during work hours.

The service isn’t just for teachers – but any APS employee – including bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers.

“It’s that crisis in the moment need,” Benton said. “They [the employee] will be directed to a clinician, and in that moment, they can speak to someone and schedule a telephonic or zoom session with someone, to support them.”

Since September, 17 APS employees have utilized the service.

Their primary concerns were related to: stress, depression, anxiety or health.

“Our goal is to be there to be responsive, to be supportive, to really help them get the care and support that they need, at that time,” said Paula Gomes, Executive director of Emory University’s Faculty Staff Assistance Program.

And, all of the services are confidential.

“It’s confidential totally so the goal is to make sure that people feel safe to share their concerns. We do not share with the principals. We do not share names of the individuals who seek the service,” Gomes added.

And sometimes – an employee may not be in crisis – they might just need a breather.

That’s where wellness rooms – like this one at John Lewis Invictus Academy, come into the picture – equipped with comfy chairs, soft music and healthy snacks.

“By creating wellness rooms, we give them a space to take that moment for themselves,” Benton added.

Benton says they plan to create wellness rooms in every APS school by the end of the year.

APS is paying for these new services using some of the nearly $23 million they received from the CARES Act. Here’s how they’re spending those funds:

- $8.4M for student technology (Chromebooks, computers, etc.)

- $5.5M for digital learning (Educational software)

- $4.1M for mental health and well-being supports for staff ($1M/year for crisis counseling and mindfulness services)

- $2.5M on PPE

- $225,000 for wellness rooms ($3000 per building, 75 buildings)