PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) – Bay District Schools officials are planning to expand their mental health services to students.

Bay District Schools will certify new counselors with a five-year federal grant worth $8.5 million.

Local students have been dealing with unique pressures, since October 2018, when Hurricane Michael destroyed the Panhandle. Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned schools upside down for two more years. Now, the economy is creating financial pressures at home, and the stress has been overwhelming for some children.

“We’re trying to be prepared for what we know what’s going to happen,” said Bill Husfelt, Bay District Schools Superintendent.” We’ve had more students in crisis. We track that very regularly. Our elementary numbers are just off the chart with students in crisis and their families and situations they’re dealing with.”

More than 1,800 students are still homeless after hurricane Michael and new students are bringing problems from their old homes.

“Can you imagine talking to a Ukrainian student right now? What going on with their families? A lot of these kids come across the border from Honduras and Guatemala,” said Husfelt. “I mean, the challenges, and I think all of us realize that whatever the political part of it is, is irrelevant. These are children we’re talking about.”

The federal government has recognized Bay County’s unique challenges, awarding the school district the only Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration Grant in the nation.

Bay District Schools will use the grant to provide professional training.

“The goal is to make sure that as we have people who position we currently have, attrition that we have, retirees that we have, that we’ll start having a cadre of people who can now come in and apply for those positions,” said Dawn Capes, Director of the Student Wellness Program for BDS.

Bay District Schools officials said they are collaborating with colleges to help get more people certified as professional guidance counselors.

The goal is to start training 12 counselors and finish with a total of 32.