NYC schools gear up to handle students’ mental health needs

The city has hired more than 500 social workers and trained parents and staffers to support students after more than a year of remote learning.

NYC hired an army of social workers, trained parents and prepared staff. It may not be enough.

NYC hired an army of social workers, trained parents and prepared staff. It may not be enough. Rido/Shutterstock

Over a thousand New York City public school kids while learning remotely during the pandemic received personal phone calls wishing them a happy birthday, even during the summer. It was one of the projects that Keisha White, a school counselor at P.S. 117 in Queens, also known as the J. Keld/Briarwood School, came up with to keep connecting with her students as many opted to learn from home during the worst of COVID-19. 

Students also received an individual shoutout on the school news, accompanied by 240 other videos that White created daily, including fun facts of the day. But now the focus is shifting to a return to in-person learning, leaving many unknowns about how students will react when they come back to school.

“We have no idea what we’re going to see. Do you know the amount of crying that happens after just one summer of a kindergarten or pre-K student coming to school on the first day? I’m trying to imagine after a year and a half. It’s going to be extra tough. I think that the children, the parents and the staff – they need stability. They don’t need all of this, ‘OK, we’re happy one day,’ and now everybody’s asked to stay home the next,” White said. 

The New York City Department of Education, in anticipation of bringing students back to class, said it has expanded mental health resources available to them, beginning with the hiring of over 500 social workers. The department also said it expanded social-emotional screenings to all schools and offered mental health resource training to parents. Also, the Summer Rising school program this past summer combined academic support with social and emotional learning, along with enrichment programming to offer families child care services.

“We know that students cannot fully engage in learning unless their social-emotional and mental health needs are being met,” a city Education Department spokesperson told City & State.

All 1,800 public schools are set to open fully, with in-person instruction five days a week starting on Sept. 13. No remote learning option will be offered, despite the threat of the delta variant and mounting pressure from parents and teachers. Time will tell whether the expansion of mental health resources will provide enough of a safety net for the most vulnerable children upon their return.

Students in neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19 have already received additional support. Social workers in October were trained to become specialists in trauma-informed work to serve 350 schools identified as being in neighborhoods most affected by the pandemic. Federal funds were used to create 27 additional community schools in the impacted neighborhoods.

Mental health and social service professionals have applauded the expansion of services. Cristina Harris, director of training at Vibrant Emotional Health who has worked in education, social work and social services for children and families for 20 years, said she believes that the efforts are well-rounded by the new hires and trauma-based training. “School is the place where all kids are going,” Harris said. “So making sure that those services are being beefed up within schools is really exciting.”

However, there also are concerns over the effectiveness of the Education Department’s efforts.

Rohini Singh, a senior staff attorney with Advocates for Children of New York, was unsure whether the addition of resources would mean greater accessibility to those resources. “While you look at a list of the programs on paper, it sounds really robust and really supports students. What we find is that there’s a disconnect between actual direct provision of services for students and access for students,” Singh said. 

We have no idea what we’re going to see. Do you know the amount of crying that happens after just one summer of a kindergarten or pre-K student coming to school on the first day?
– school counselor Keisha White

The additional personnel also might not be enough. City Limits reported that while the department said it maintains a ratio of one social worker and guidance counselor for every 215 students, which is lower than the recommended ratio by the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation as well as the national average, the calculation of the ratio has come into question. City Limits found the department calculated the ratio by combining the total number of social workers and guidance counselors to the total school population, even though the two positions have differing roles.

Separating the two, City Limits found that there were 323 students for every guidance counselor, and 632 students for every social worker. Add the 150 social workers who were recently hired and 290 included in the executive budget on education and the ratio is 489 students for every social worker, according to City Limits. The news outlet did point out that the data doesn’t include other supports offered to students through community-based organizations and mental health clinics.

The Education Department did not respond to an email requesting clarification on the numbers.

Before the department announced the additional hires, the United Federation of Teachers released a five-point plan with suggestions on how to support students after the pandemic. Their initial point recommended creating teams of academic intervention specialists and social workers for each of the 1,800 public schools. The plan suggests that the average school would need about six to eight professionals, with numbers fluctuating based on school size. This would require the hiring of 10,000 new professionals and would cost approximately $1 billion.

Though the department’s numbers fell quite short of the UFT’s, the union was pleased with how the city has responded to the needs of students.

“The UFT and parents lobbied on the city, state and federal level, and the result was increased funding on all levels. As a result, (New York City) for the first time provided 100% fair student funding for every school. This increase gives principals the ability to hire additional counselors, mental health professionals and academic support specialists for their school communities – a big win for students. In addition, the City Council allocated additional funds for counselors at schools that previously lacked them,” a UFT spokesperson told City & State.

School is the place where all kids are going. So making sure that those services are being beefed up within schools is really exciting.
– Cristina Harris, Vibrant Emotional Health’s director of training

Funding also may prove to be a roadblock to cementing the longevity of the additional staffers who were already hired. As of now, federal pandemic relief money made several of these efforts possible, including the hiring of new social workers and the creation of new community schools. That funding will have to be used by 2024. Advocates said they were already prepared to fight for the continued funding of these programs – but that it will require evidence that the programs are working. Currently, data for some of these programs can be found using the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health’s data dashboard.

“The way forward is to make sure that everyone who works with children, or has a family of their own, or cares about children and families, understands what this looks like,” Harris said. “It is great that this money has been infused. But we’re going to really have to fight and advocate for the continued funding of mental health in schools.

“This is necessary foundationally to children and youth actually thriving in the world in educational outcomes and being able to then enter the workforce,” Harris added.

While funding will continue to be a fight for child welfare advocates, the Education Department’s efforts will help make a difference for schools like the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, which will be receiving the help of one of the 500 new hires. Principal Dawn Brooks DeCosta believes that having a social worker for the first time will help the staff and students continue to prioritize social-emotional learning.

“So this will be the first time that we’ve had someone – our own social worker – and someone that can be very laser-focused and dedicated to making sure that kids are making this adjustment with a lot of support, any kind of trauma that students have experienced over the pandemic,” Brooks DeCosta said. “We’re just really happy to have someone that is going to be very focused on that, although we’ll all be involved. We want to make sure that that person is really available to all of our students and families. It’s a great benefit that we would otherwise not be able to afford on our own because of our small size.”