(COLUMBUS, Ohio)— Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Lt. Governor Jon Husted today announced a telehealth pilot project to connect K12 students with mental health counselors in the rural Switzerland School District in Monroe County, located in southeast Ohio along the Ohio river. The technology could avert 60-minute commutes to offer on-demand access to mental health counseling in crises. Once results are received from the pilot, the goal is to expand the project to other schools in Ohio.
By connecting schools with mental health providers through telehealth, the project takes another step toward implementing InnovateOhio’s recently released “Ohio Broadband Strategy,” which seeks to bring high-speed internet connectivity to the approximately one million Ohioans who do not have access. You can read more about the state’s broadband plans at Innovate.Ohio.gov/Broadband.
This new partnership between InnovateOhio and the newly created BroadbandOhio will target developing a pattern that can be applied at school districts across the state, particularly in rural areas.
“Today’s children are facing unprecedented challenges; we have an obligation to ensure every child has access to the services and supports they need in order to be physically and emotionally healthy,” Governor DeWine said. “This pilot program will help connect more Ohio students to mental healthcare while also serving as an example for future telehealth programs.”
Switzerland of Ohio’s school system currently contracts with two mental health counselors to offer in-person services to students. Unfortunately, due to the large geographic footprint of the district, it can take as long as 60 minutes for a counselor to travel between schools. Worse, poor cell phone coverage makes it difficult to reach counselors while traveling. This lost time is billed to the school district even though it cannot benefit students. By enabling telehealth solutions, this lost time can be recovered and allow services when they’re needed – precisely at the moment a student has a mental health crisis.
The state’s Ohio Academic Resource Network (OARnet) already connects eight school buildings in the Switzerland of Ohio district through a fiber-optic connection. The proposed pilot project will create telehealth spaces within the schools compliant with federal regulations and capable of live video and audio feed to meet this need in a virtualized manner.
In addition to providing every student in the Switzerland district with increased access to a mental health professional, the second phase of the project (expected to begin in early 2021), will begin connecting the school’s existing fiber-optic network directly to remote offices of mental health professionals, so students can have access to care and additional services, beyond the two counselors who physically work in the schools. The first such connection will be with pilot project partner Southeast Healthcare Facilities.
Because the second phase of the project could result in additional fiber-optic lines being run through rural areas of the county in order to connect the remote provider with the school, the main fiber-optic conduit could potentially be accessible to the general public in the area as a possible last-mile connection point. In this manner, telehealth expansion could serve a dual purpose in expanding broadband internet to unserved areas of Ohio.
According to InnovateOhio’s Ohio Broadband Strategy document, over 300,000 households in Ohio, representing approximately 1 million people, lack access to a high-speed, broadband internet.
“Access to high-speed internet is a necessity to take full advantage of the opportunities offered in our world today,” said Lt. Governor Husted. “We also know that the nature of medical care is changing, and with it, we have the opportunity to reach and help more people if only we can get them online.”
The project will be funded by existing Medicaid dollars set aside in the 2020-2021 biennial budget for the expansion of telehealth opportunities for behavioral and medical treatment.
“Due to recent closures of mental health providers in our area, students and families who need to access mental or behavioral health services are taxed with the difficult decision to travel hours away to seek treatment, which in turn results in missed days of school and costly travel expenses,” said Switzerland of Ohio School Superintendent Rob Caldwell. “Bringing providers to the schools will ensure students’ needs are met and with less burdens on families."
The Switzerland of Ohio school district was chosen for the pilot project due to their significant need for expanded mental health services. As a rural district with sparse connectivity and a county-wide service area, in recent months, the district has experienced three tragic deaths by suicide within students’ families, along with several additional suicide attempts.
The objective of the pilot project is to provide a pattern that could be scaled across the state to serve all districts with mental health services, while also providing broadband internet connections to Ohioans who have been left behind.