In a move intended to address the trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the city plans to launch a mental health screening initiative for public school students, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

The initiative will assess students' mental well-being at schools in 27 hardest-hit neighborhoods severely impacted by the pandemic, according to de Blasio. Students will first be evaluated through a five-minute questionnaire, with questions that will include a student's thoughts and feelings, their perspective on schools, and relationships with friends and family. The neighborhoods include East Tremont, Bushwick, Queensbridge, Stapleton, and Washington Heights, which are largely Black and Brown communities.

Another component to the problem involves adding extra support services to 27 community schools, which work with community-based organizations to respond to a child's social-emotional needs. Some examples include mental health clinics, food pantries, immigration counseling, and acamdemic reports.

With parental consent, students in urgent need of mental health services will be connected with either NYC Health + Hospitals or the ThriveNYC program managed by First Lady Chirlane McCray. The city will fund the program in its next budget, hiring an additional 150 social workers to help carry out the work at the 27 communities. De Blasio could not say how much the program will cost.

"We know it's easier and less expensive to grow a healthy child than it is to mend a broken adult," McCray said at de Blasio's morning press conference.

De Blasio compared the program to his initiative addressing learning loss during the pandemic, adding that the mental health screening will produce tailored programming for a child's social-emotional needs.

But the program—which McCray noted needs federal stimulus funding to be truly systemwide—won't launch until September 2021. The timeline raised questions about the city's current attempt to address mental health challenges among children, particularly as the pandemic continues.

Speaking to reporters at the press conference, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza downplayed the long time until the program's launch, arguing that the initiative simply builds upon existing mental health services provided to students across the system. This includes the training of 50,000 public school teachers to identify the signs of children in mental distress. Carranza admitted that the pandemic has hamstrung its ability to truly respond to all students needs, including those with an Individualized Education Program.

"We're picking currently from a portfolio of imperfect choices. If everyone had their druthers, we would be inoculated," Carranza said. "We would have the ability to come back to school in person, everybody five days a week, providing the kinds of services that we did prior to this COVID-19. We're just not there."

De Blasio defended the timing of the launch, saying the initiative will be more effective when all 1 million public school students are expected to return to the classroom in person come September next year.

"What we're now building is a framework for starting to do things in September that we've never done before: to have pervasive social-emotional learning support; pervasive access to mental health support when it's needed, universal screenings," de Blasio said.

The pandemic has disrupted much of what students know about about school life, beginning in March, when the onset of the virus forced more than 1 million schoolchildren out of school, shifting completely to remote learning. This upended many end-of-school rituals, such as in-person prom or graduation. The disruption continued into the school year, as students either opted for full remote learning, keeping them away from friends, or returned to the classroom with social distancing restrictions that included lunch at their desks.

Children have also been exposed to death at greater rates because of the pandemic. A report by the United Hospital Fund released in late September had found 4,200 out of 4 million children across the state have lost a parent to the virus between March and July, with half of those victims identified as Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn residents.