Updated February 24, 2022 - 6:18 pm
A pair of science classes at Spring Valley High School were in session when U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and an entourage of officials made their way around campus Thursday morning.
“I’m Miguel,” the country’s top education official said, leveling with chemistry students conducting an experiment in a lab.
At Chanel Laughlin’s biology class, where students were learning to decode DNA, Cardona hinted at the purpose of his Las Vegas visit: “I know these past couple of years have been a little tough, right? But you’re resilient, you keep inspiring us,” he told the class.
Cardona was in Las Vegas on Thursday to discuss pandemic-era mental wellness challenges and to promote the Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.
The legislation, which was unveiled this month alongside U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would promote mental health and suicide prevention efforts in schools, according to Rosen’s office.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration already funds such programs at higher-education institutions, but the bill would expand it to K-12 districts, according to the senator’s office.
Rosen, Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara and Nevada Superintendent Jhone Ebert accompanied Cardona on the tour, which then moved onto a roundtable discussion with students and faculty at the library.
Cardona, who noted that this was his first visit to Nevada as the education secretary, said he was there to listen.
“This is the highlight of the work that I do as secretary of education, when I get to hear of students, especially now,” he said. “When we go back to D.C., we’re going to make sure that we’re listening to the students, and the work that I do is driven by students.”
The students mentioned feeling supported by school administrators during remote learning after the pandemic shut down campuses in March 2020 but also about struggling to navigate peer-to-peer “connections” after in-person learning returned in August.
Despite the adversity, being back felt good, student Madeline Virissimo told the group.
“It feels really nice,” she said, “because being online, you can’t see everybody’s face and you can’t remember them.”
During remote learning, the school implemented check-in systems, which gave the students the opportunity to share how they were feeling and allowed administrators to touch base with them.
Spring Valley counselor John Tyler placed his hand on his chest as he thanked the students who highlighted their efforts.
“Hearing them recognize that,” he said. “That’s very heartwarming.”
Tyler and counselor colleague Natalie McLintock mentioned the need for licensed therapists to deal with the students’ emotional well-being. Rosen noted that there are proposals for President Joe Biden’s America Rescue Plan to double the number of school counselors.
Cardona and Rosen spoke to reporters after the event.
“Today we’re talking about mental health because unfortunately the Clark County School District was on top of a list no one wants to be on top of: 20 suicides in 2020,” the senator said about the students who took their own lives that year.
“So, we have some legislation we’re going to put some funding through for mental health … suicide prevention,” the senator said. “Sen. Murkowski and I (are) bringing that down to K-12 for school districts across the country, to make sure that every kid knows they matter and that every child has the kind of support they need at their schools.”
Cardona highlighted the school reopenings but emphasized that “we’re not done.”
“Reopening is the baseline,” he said. “We need to do better, our schools moving forward have to be better, our students deserve it, our parents deserve it, we’ve gone through a lot as a country.”
“We have funding now, we have strong leadership here, and we know that providing mental health support is a bigger part of education moving forward,” he added.
Addressing the uptick of violence and disciplinary issues in the Clark County School District this school year, Cardona said the country as a whole is experiencing collective trauma after two years of pandemic-related disruptions.
“Many of our students are dysregulated, many adults are dysregulated, we’re seeing that in our schools, we’re seeing that in airports,” he said. “We need to do what we know works, provide the support that our students need, engage with our families differently, and invest in additional staffing to help meet the needs of the community.”
As a father of two high schoolers, Cardona said, he personally witnessed the detriments of distance learning.
“This is a people business,” he said. “So if we’re not reopening schools, thinking about how we’re going to redesign our schools to make sure that emotional well-being is at the heart of our schools, then we’re going to miss an opportunity to give students a chance to flourish to their potential.”
Visits to Clark High School with Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., Charlotte Hill Elementary School with Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., and College of Southern Nevada and Cheyenne High School with Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., were also on Cardona’s itinerary Thursday.