Mira Aguado felt anxious and depressed when she returned to her high school in Cobb County, Georgia, last fall after months of remote learning, so she sought help. But her school counselor kept rescheduling their meetings because she had so many students to see.
The Class 12 student later said, “I felt helpless and alone.
In spite of oneschool districts across the country have struggled to staff up to meet students’ mental health needs that have only increased since the pandemic hit.
According to a ChalkBeat analysis, 12 of the nation’s 18 largest school districts began this school year with fewer counselors or psychologists than they did in fall 2019. As a result, according to experts and advocates, many school mental health professionals have caseloads that are much higher than recommended, and students must wait for the help they need right away.
Some of the additional need for support has been absorbed by social workers — their ranks have swelled by nearly 50 percent since before the pandemic, federal data show — but they have other mental health professionals. There are many other duties including providing medical training and supporting families. . The districts in the analysis, which serve 3 million students, started the year with nearly 1,000 mental health vacancies.
Employment challenges are largely to blame, but some school systems have diverted aid money to other priorities. The Cobb County district, for one, hasn’t added any new councilors.
“They have a lot of students they’re dealing with,” 17-year-old Meera said. “I don’t want to blame them personally. But I also deserve care and support.”
A Cobb County Public Schools spokeswoman said the school counselor positions are based on the state funding formula, and the district strongly supports more funding.
ChalkBeat’s analysis is based on school staffing and vacancy data obtained through open records requests. The 31 largest U.S. districts were surveyed, but some did not track or provide data.
Some school systems used federal aid money to add mental health staff, but others did not because they were concerned about their costs after the aid ended. Districts have limited time to spend the roughly $190 billion earmarked for rehabilitation.
“That’s the conundrum we’re in,” said Christy McCoy, president of the School Social Work Association of America. “It feels like we’re trying to put a Band-Aid on something that needs a more holistic and integrated approach.”
Many schools that want to hire more mental health workers can’t 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 just one additional psychologist on staff this fall. Dozens of posts could not be filled.
Schools in Florida’s Hillsborough County eliminated dozens of filled psychologist positions, leaving schools with 33 fewer psychologists than the pandemic this fall. Houston schools also cut more than a dozen psychologist roles that could not be filled before the pandemic. Instead, the district used the money to pay outside providers and hire psychologist interns.
With their expanded training, school psychologists are trusted to provide intensive one-on-one counseling and help determine whether students are at risk for suicide.
In Maryland, a shortage of psychologists in Montgomery County Public Schools has left the understaffed department focused on providing crisis intervention and legally mandated services such as special education assessments, said Christina Connolly-Chester, director of psychiatric services. said This means that they cannot continue to provide other, less essential consulting services.
“If that psychologist has more schools because there are vacancies and they’re not able to spend as much time in their assigned schools, then things like counseling are lost,” he said.
The district has tried to hire staff to meet the growing needs of students, such as those struggling with anxiety, depression and conflict management, but still has 30 psychologist vacancies, a district official said. Told this month.
Even before the pandemic, some schools struggled to find psychologists. New practitioners are not entering the field fast enough, and others are switching to telehealth or private practice with higher pay and often better working conditions.
“We can’t afford to pay professionals enough to make it a desirable location,” said psychologist Sharon Hoover, co-director of 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 largest districts seeing fewer counselors this year, while another nine saw increases.
Where recruiting has been most difficult, schools have turned to alternatives. In Hawaii, which had 31 vacant counselor positions and 20 vacant psychologist roles at the start of the year, the state has trained teachers to identify when a student is in trouble — a common practice. – and pays a private company to provide telephones. mental health services.
It’s not just hiring challenges that have led to lower-than-expected staff growth. Some school systems spent most of their federal aid on longer-term investments, such as technology or building repairs. And many chose not to hire new mental health workers at all.
In ChalkBeat’s analysis, half of the 18 largest districts budgeted for fewer counselor or psychologist positions this school year than they did in fall 2019.
In April, only 4 out of 10 districts reported hiring new staff. To meet the mental health needs of students, according to a national survey.
“For all the talk about mental health, the actual money they’re spending on it is not that much,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that tracks school spending. Tracks. School districts planned to spend just 2% of the largest round of federal COVID aid on mental health services, according to the group’s analysis of more than 5,000 district spending plans.
One bright spot in the school mental health landscape, though, is the rise of social workers.
Montgomery County in Maryland, Gwinnett County in Georgia, and Orange, Broward, and Palm Beach counties in Florida started with dozens more social workers than in the fall of 2019. Because of the staffing commitments in the teachers union’s latest contract.
ChalkBeat’s analysis echoes national data collected by the White House showing that the number of school social workers was 48 percent higher this fall than before the pandemic, while school counselors The number was a more modest 12 percent and the number of school psychologists increased by 4 percent.
In Houston, staffing increases mean 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 teaches other students calming strategies, such as tracing your hand with a finger while breathing.
Still, needs often exceed capacity at Rincon’s school, where many students are refugees or recent immigrants coping with trauma. He often has to prioritize helping students with immediate problems, leaving less time to check on others.
“I want to be able to just talk to a kindergartner about how they’re feeling,” Rincon said. “Those are the kinds of things that slip through the cracks I think.”