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With students facing ever-growing levels of depression and anxiety as the pandemic wears on, nearly everyone agrees that school districts need to expand their mental health services.
But budget uncertainties have stymied school districts’ efforts to hire more counselors and psychologists, leaving mental health advocates worried that thousands of students in California won’t receive the help they need.
“Basically, nearly every student in California has been traumatized,” said Melanee Cottrill, executive director of the California Association of School Psychologists. “We expect to see a huge demand when school reopens, and we are very concerned about meeting the needs of students.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, have implored school districts to hire more counselors, psychologists and social workers — not just to help students through the pandemic but as a counterweight to reducing school police.
“We owe our young people. We have to be there for them, despite the difficult circumstances we face,” Thurmond said earlier this month during a public panel on the need for mental health services in schools. “Let’s deliver the services our students deserve.”
Still, districts are reluctant to add to their payrolls during these tenuous times, said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association.
Although the state budget leaves K-12 funding mostly intact, the unstable economy has hindered districts’ ability to plan long-term. About 80-90% of a district’s revenue goes toward personnel costs, including salaries, benefits and pensions, leaving very little budget flexibility, he said.
Complicating matters, next year’s budget “already looks grim,” he said. Revenues are expected to drop significantly, state and federal relief packages are likely to taper off, and many districts will have raided their reserves by then, he said.
“In times of economic distress and uncertainty, there’s a reluctance to hire new employees,” Flint said. “But districts recognize that there’s a great benefit to having counselors available for students, and if they can find a way to pay for it, they will.”
At the mental health panel Thurmond hosted, experts offered suggestions for how districts can find money for mental health services, including working with local nonprofits, transferring money from police contracts, obtaining federal funding through Medicaid or applying for grants were among the ideas.
Districts might have limited money for counseling positions, but there’s no shortage of counselors ready to start work. Postings for counselor jobs in desirable locations receive dozens or even hundreds of applicants. Counselor jobs on EdJoin, the primary job board for schools, are usually listed for just a week before closing.
And plenty of people are trying to enter the field. Cal State Long Beach, for example, last year received about 200 applicants for its counselor program, accepting only 20, said Caroline Lopez-Perry, an assistant professor in the program.
Esther Park can attest to the difficulty of finding a counseling job. She was laid off in March from her counseling position in the Buena Park School District in Orange County, and has applied for every counseling vacancy in her area since then. Despite nearly a decade of experience, she hasn’t even received a call back.
“I don’t really understand it. Counselors are needed now more than ever,” she said.
At her previous job, at a middle school, Park worked with students individually and in small groups to help them work through trauma, anxiety, depression, problems with peers and other issues. She also met with parents, scheduled students’ classes and visited classrooms to talk about stress relief, study habits and what to expect in high school.
She had personal relationships with students, as well. When students missed class, she’d find out why, and try to fix the underlying issue. When families were experiencing hardships, she helped them find food or a place to live. If students couldn’t get online, she’d help them find free Wi-Fi. And she was there when students just needed someone to talk to about the normal angst of adolescence.
When the district reorganized its school staffing, she and a colleague were let go, leaving only three counselors for 4,400 students.
“We were really busy — it wasn’t because we had nothing to do. I was shocked when we got laid off,” she said. “It was hard to tell my students. Some of them started crying.”
When students have access to school counselors, their attendance improves, they have fewer behavior problems, and they’re more likely to go to college, said Lopez-Perry, citing recent research. Laying off counselors, especially during a crisis, is short-sighted, she said.
“When a recession hits, counselors are always the first to get cut. It’s a reactive approach,” she said. “It’s a matter of educating districts on the value of having counselors in the building. … When students have someone in the building they trust and can go to, they’re more likely to stay engaged in school and seek help when they need it.”
The outlook is equally daunting for school psychologists, who provide mental health counseling, assess students with learning disabilities and create individualized education programs for students with disabilities, among other tasks. California has a ratio of 975 students for every psychologist, almost double the recommended ratio by the National Association of School Psychologists.
When schools reopen, psychologists expect not only a deluge of students with mental health concerns, but an enormous backlog of IEP assessments, which cannot be done virtually, Cottrill said.
Psychologists worry they might not be able to reach all the students who need help, unless districts hire more mental health staff, she said. Students’ anxieties are not likely to taper off as long as the pandemic and school closures continue, she said.
Schools in rural areas might be especially hard hit by students’ growing mental health needs, she said. Many rural schools have no psychologists at all, and share staff with neighboring schools. Modoc County, for example, only has three school psychologists to cover an area of 4,203 square miles.
“Mental health services really vary by district,” Cottrill said. “In a perfect world, all districts would be able to make it a priority right now.”
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