The failure of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to adequately prepare for the new 2020/2021 school year has placed children across New Jersey, including young and teenage students in my South Jersey legislative district, in harm’s way.

The governor’s proposed state budget for next year slashes funding for important school-based counseling programs in a way that appears to ignore that the COVID-19 pandemic has churned out a mental health pandemic in its wake.

Three in 10 parents have reported that their children are “already experiencing harm to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and closures,” according to a recent Gallup poll.

It’s clear that the return to completely virtual learning for many children, limited in-school schedules for others, and little opportunity for face-to-face social interactions for all students will only add to the harm that has already been done.

Murphy’s proposed budget would further compound this crisis by denying vulnerable children the resources and support they need to cope with the significant mental health challenges that have become all too common. That is unconscionable.

As the former chairman of Big Brother and Big Sisters of Cumberland and Salem County, I know the importance of immersing our children in competitive education programs, and how one-on-one social interactions can set a child up for success both inside and outside the classroom.

We know that socialization is critical to the emotional growth, happiness and overall well-being of our children. When they are denied that opportunity they suffer, and many need extra help to develop appropriate tools to cope and compensate.

That’s why it’s so concerning that Gov. Murphy chose to slash funding to the School Based Youth Services Program (SBYSP), which includes mental health counseling; substance abuse education/prevention; preventive health awareness including pregnancy prevention; learning support; healthy youth development; recreation; and more.

Many kids don’t have access to counseling or support anywhere outside of school. If these programs are eliminated, they won’t have it anywhere.

For Cumberland County, which already ranks as one of the most challenging places to raise a child according to Kids Count, the Murphy administration’s proposed cuts will be devastating.

Between 2013 through 2017, Cumberland County had the highest number of teens, ages 16 to 19, who were not attending school in New Jersey. This accounted for nearly 1,300 students or 17% of the teen population in Cumberland County.

In Cumberland County alone, the proposed budget would eliminate the following CompleteCare Health Network SBYSP locations:

— The Teen Center at Bridgeton High School;

— The Colt Connection at Cumberland Regional High School;

— The Kids’ Center at Downe Township Elementary School; and

— The Kids’ Corner at Broad Street School in Bridgeton.

As a father, I am concerned to see that our community’s children may lose the support services they need to get through the school year without unnecessary suffering or real harm.

As a legislator, I am frustrated by the continued failure of an administration that has placed children across the Garden State dead last in its priorities.

It’s time for Trenton to focus on solutions instead of the same old tired excuses for why important programs can’t be funded. I am confident that if we look at the way COVID-19 aid is currently being spent we can find creative solutions to fund programs for kids in need.

In March, for example, Murphy received more than $2 billion in CARES Act funding from the federal government. This money was designed to help New Jersey respond to the many needs that have arisen as a result the coronavirus.

More than five months after receiving these billions in federal relief funding, however, the Murphy administration has spent only a fraction of New Jersey’s share of COVID-19 aid.

Ensuring that critical school-based mental health and counseling programs can continue to operate and support the needs of students during this crisis is clearly an appropriate use of these funds.

Nobody will be helped by our billions of CARES Act funds collecting dust unspent in a bank account, so I am calling for the immediate refunding of our School Based Youth Services Program and the mental health resources that are critical to keeping New Jersey’s youth healthy and safe.

State Sen. Michael Testa, of Vineland, represents Legislative District 1 serving all of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties.

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