Mira Ugwuadu felt anxious and depressed when she returned to her high school in Cobb County, Georgia last fall after months of distance learning, so she reached out for help. But her school counselor kept rescheduling their meetings because she had so many students to see.
“I felt helpless and alone,” the 12th grader later said.
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Despite an influx of COVID-19 relief money, school districts across the country have struggled to staff staff to meet student mental health needs that have only increased since the pandemic.
Among 18 of the nation’s largest school districts, 12 started this school year with fewer counselors or psychologists than they had in the fall of 2019, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat. As a result, many school mental health professionals have caseloads that far exceed recommended limits, experts and advocates say, and students have to wait for the help they urgently need.
Some of the additional need for support has been absorbed by social workers — their ranks have risen nearly 50% since before the pandemic, according to federal data — but they have different clinical training than other mental health professionals. and many other tasks, including helping families. The districts included in the analysis, which serve a total of 3 million students, started the year with nearly 1,000 mental health vacancies.
Hiring problems are largely to blame, but some school systems have invested relief funds in other priorities. The Cobb County District, for its part, did not add any new councilors.
“They have so many students they are dealing with,” said 17-year-old Mira. “Personally, I don’t want to blame them. But I also deserve care and support.
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A Cobb County Public Schools spokesperson said school trustee positions are based on a state funding formula and the district strongly supports increased funding.
Chalkbeat’s analysis is based on data on school personnel and vacancies obtained through open record requests. The 31 largest districts in the United States were surveyed, but some did not track or provide data.
Some school systems used federal relief money to add mental health staff, but others did not because they feared paying them after the aid ran out. Districts have little time to spend the nearly $190 billion allocated for stimulus.
“Here’s this conundrum we find ourselves in,” said Christy McCoy, president of the School Social Work Association of America. “It’s like we’re trying to put a band-aid on something that needs a more holistic and integrated approach.”
Many schools that have wanted to hire more mental health workers simply cannot find them. School psychologist positions have been particularly difficult to fill.
Chicago, for example, added 32 school psychologist positions since fall 2019, but ended up with only one additional psychologist on staff this fall. Dozens of positions could not be filled.
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Schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, eliminated dozens of unfilled psychologist positions, leaving schools with 33 fewer psychologists this fall than before the pandemic. Houston schools also cut more than a dozen psychologist positions they couldn’t fill before the pandemic. Instead, the district used the money to pay outside providers and hire psychology interns.
Through their extensive training, school psychologists are called upon to provide intensive individual counseling and help determine if students are at risk for suicide.
In Maryland, a shortage of psychologists in public schools in Montgomery County has kept the understaffed department focused on crisis intervention and providing legally mandated services like special education evaluations, a said Christina Connolly-Chester, director of psychological services. This means they cannot keep up with other less urgent counseling services.
“If that psychologist has more schools because there are vacancies and he can’t spend as much time in his assigned schools, then things like counseling disappear,” he said. she stated.
The district sought to hire staff to address increased student needs such as anxiety, depression and conflict management issues, but there were still 30 vacancies for psychologists, a district official said this month. -this.
Even before the pandemic, some schools struggled to find psychologists. New practitioners did not enter the field quickly enough, and others turned to telehealth or private practices with higher pay and often better working conditions.
“We can’t afford to pay enough professionals to make this a desirable position,” said Sharon Hoover, a psychologist who co-directs the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland.
Counselor staffing has also been a challenge for some districts, with nine of the larger districts declining counselors this year, while nine others saw increases.
Where hiring has been most difficult, schools have turned to alternatives. In Hawaii, which had 31 vacant counselor positions and 20 vacant psychologist positions at the start of the year, the state trained educators to spot signs that a student is in distress – an increasingly common practice – and pays a private company to provide tele-mental health services.
It’s not just hiring issues that have led to lower-than-expected staffing increases. Some school systems have devoted most of their federal aid to more sustainable investments, such as technology or building repairs. And many have chosen not to add new mental health workers at all.
In Chalkbeat’s analysis, half of the 18 large districts planned fewer counselor or psychologist positions this school year than in the fall of 2019.
In April, just 4 in 10 districts reported hiring new staff to meet student mental health needs, according to a national survey.
“Despite all the rhetoric about mental health, the actual money they’re spending on it isn’t that high,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that tracks mental health issues. school expenses. School districts only planned to spend about 2% of the largest round of federal COVID hiring aid on mental health, according to the group’s analysis of more than 5,000 district spending plans.
One bright spot in the school mental health landscape, however, is the increase in the number of social workers.
Montgomery County in Maryland, Gwinnett County in Georgia, and Orange, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida all started the year with dozens more social workers than in the fall of 2019. Chicago added the most – nearly 150 more social workers – in part due to staffing promises in the teachers union’s latest contract.
Chalkbeat’s analysis echoes national data collected by the White House that shows the number of school social workers increased 48% this fall compared to before the pandemic, while the number of school counselors increased by 12%. more modest and the number of school psychologists increased by 4%.
In Houston, staffing increases meant nearly every school started this fall with a counselor or social worker.
Newly hired social worker Natalie Rincon is able to meet one-on-one with students in crisis and teach other students calming strategies, such as tracing their hand with a finger while breathing.
Yet the needs often exceed the capacity of the Rincon school, where many students are refugees or recent immigrants struggling with trauma. She often has to prioritize helping students with urgent problems, which leaves her with less time to care for others.
“I want to be able to meet a kindergarten kid just to talk about how they feel,” Rincon said. “It’s the kind of stuff that I think slips through the cracks.”
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