By PATRICK WALL and KALYN BELSHA of Chalkbeat and ANNIE MA of The Associated Press
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 sought 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.
Despite an influx of COVID-19 aid money, school districts across the country have struggled to find staff to address student mental health needs that have only grown since the pandemic hit.
Among 18 of the nation’s largest school districts, 12 started this school year with fewer counselors or psychologists than they had in fall 2019, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat. As a result, many school mental health workers have caseloads that far exceed recommended limits, according to experts and advocates, and students must wait for urgently needed help.
Some of the extra need for support has been absorbed by social workers — their ranks have grown by nearly 50% since before the pandemic, federal data show — but they have different clinical training than other mental health workers and many other duties, including helping families. Districts included in the analysis, which serve a combined 3 million students, started the year with nearly 1,000 unfilled mental health positions.
Hiring challenges are largely to blame, but some school systems have invested aid money in other priorities. The Cobb County district, for example, did not add any new counselors.
“They have so many students to deal with,” says Mira (17). “I personally don’t want to blame them. But I also deserve care and support.”
A spokesperson for Cobb County Public Schools said school counselor positions are based on a state funding formula, and the district strongly supports more funding.
The Chalkbeat analysis is based on school personnel and vacancy data obtained through open records requests. The 31 largest counties in the US were surveyed, but some did not track or provide data.
Some school systems have used federal aid money to add mental health staff, but others have not because they were worried about being able to afford it once the aid runs out. Districts have limited time to spend the nearly $190 billion allocated for recovery.
“Here’s this conundrum we’re in,” said Christy McCoy, the 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 comprehensive and integrated approach.”
Many of the schools that wanted to hire more mental health professionals simply cannot find them. School psychologist positions were particularly difficult to fill.
Chicago, for example, has added 32 school psychologist positions since fall 2019, but only employed one additional psychologist this fall. Dozens of positions could not be filled.
Schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, have eliminated dozens of unfilled psychologist positions, leaving schools with 33 fewer psychologists than pre-pandemic this fall. Houston schools have also cut more than a dozen psychologist roles they could not fill before the pandemic. Instead, the district used the money to pay outside providers and hire psychology interns.
With their extensive training, school psychologists are relied upon to provide intensive one-on-one counseling and help determine whether students are at risk for suicide.
In Maryland, a shortage of psychologists at Montgomery County Public Schools has kept the understaffed department focused on crisis intervention and providing legally mandated services such as special education assessments, said Christina Connolly-Chester, director of psychological services. This meant that they could not keep up with other, less urgent counseling services.
“If that psychologist has more schools because there are vacancies and they can’t spend as much time in their assigned schools, things like counseling go away,” she said.
The district tried to hire staff to address increased student needs such as anxiety, depression and struggles with conflict management, but still had 30 vacant psychologist positions, a district official said this month.
Even before the pandemic, some schools struggled to find psychologists. New practitioners did not enter the field quickly enough, and others switched to telehealth or private practices with higher pay and often better working conditions.
“We can’t afford to pay professionals enough to make it a desirable position,” said Sharon Hoover, a psychologist who is 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 large districts shedding counselors this year while another nine saw increases.
Where appointments were most difficult, schools 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 educators to spot signs that a student is in need — an increasingly common practice — and pays a private company to tele- mental health services.
It’s not just hiring challenges that have led to smaller-than-expected staff increases. Some school systems have spent most of their federal aid on more lasting investments, such as technology or building repairs. And many chose not to add new mental health workers at all.
In the Chalkbeat 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, just 4 in 10 districts reported hiring new staff members to address students’ mental health needs, according to a national survey.
“For all the talk about mental health, the actual money they spend on it is not that high,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University that tracks school spending. School districts only planned to spend about 2% of the largest round of federal COVID aid on mental health hiring, according to the group’s analysis of more than 5,000 district spending plans.
However, one bright spot in the school’s mental health landscape is the increase in 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 they had in fall 2019. Chicago added the most — nearly 150 additional social workers — in part because of staffing promises in the latest teachers union contract.
The Chalkbeat analysis echoes national data collected by the White House, which shows that the number of school social workers increased by 48% this fall compared to before the pandemic, while the number of school counselors increased by a more modest 12% and the number school psychologists increased by 4%.
In Houston, staffing increases meant that nearly every school started with a counselor or social worker this fall.
Newly hired social worker Natalie Rincon can meet one-on-one with students in crisis and teach other students calming strategies, such as tracing their hand with a finger while they breathe.
Yet the need often exceeds capacity at Rincon’s school, where many students are refugees or recent immigrants dealing with trauma. She often has to prioritize helping students with pressing issues, leaving less time to check in with others.
“I want to be able to meet with a toddler just to talk about how they’re feeling,” Rincon said. “Those are the kinds of things that I think slip through the cracks.”
Mom covers education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. The Associated Press’s reporting on issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.