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As student mental health needs rise, some NYC schools could lose counselors

Budget cuts could erode schools’ social and emotional supports.

With her job on the line, a school counselor Shana Bennett fears for her students.  
Courtesy photo

Last fall, Carolina Zapata’s 11-year-old daughter often came home from her South Bronx elementary school soaked with sweat from the anxiety she experienced during the day.

“As soon as she [was] getting her counseling, everything changed,” Zapata said, noting her daughter, Yuleiniz Molina, soon gained confidence, won awards, and became a class officer.

Zapata credits one of the school’s counselors, Shana Bennett, with the transformation. Bennett, however, may no longer be at P.S. 274 when classes resume next month.

Bennett is among 150 mental health professionals including clinical social workers, creative arts therapists and mental health counselors in roughly 60 high needs schools across the five boroughs employed through the nonprofit Counseling in Schools. Bennett’s position — along with that of nearly a third of other counselors in the program — could soon be on the chopping block, Counseling in Schools said, as city and state funding cuts hit schools’ bottom lines and leave principals unable to afford the program’s counselors. Individual schools, in total, stand to lose more than $2 million that cover the counseling positions. Those counselors serve more than 2,100 students.

Bennett smiles alongside one of her young students.
Courtesy photo

The city’s final budget notably spared some 130 counseling and social worker posts filled through the Single Shepherd middle school program. But many staffers from Counseling in Schools, which also provides professional development for counselors and extracurricular activities for youth, had no such luck.

Cuts in counseling positions could coincide with growing student mental health needs — amid a pandemic that has upended lives and routines, and following the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent anti-racism protest movement. To help address student trauma, the education department has pledged to focus on social and emotional supports, including mental health services. But that costs money, and the shrunken 2020-21 city budget reflects the vast economic fallout from the pandemic.

New York City schools already face a shortage of counselors and social workers, data from recent years show. In the South Bronx, there was only one social worker for every 589 students, according to New Settlement Action Committee data from 2017. In the 2015-16 academic year, there were only 4.9 support workers for every 1,000 students in the school system as a whole, according to data from ProPublica.

Bennett has spent three years at P.S. 274, where nearly all of the school’s 500 students are from low-income families. The school is located in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts, and across the street from a public housing complex so hard hit by coronavirus infections that one of the residents dubbed it “death towers.”

Of the school’s three full-time counselors, one works exclusively with students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Programs that mandate counseling. Another works with students in temporary housing. Bennett and the four graduate students she supervises serve other students who don’t fall into those categories, but are considered high-risk — or “high promise,” as Bennett calls them. Trauma at home is common, she said, and many students lack resources they need to thrive, such as quality healthcare and tutoring services.

She said families see the school as a “second home.” Without the counselors they rely on, Bennett said, “you’re removing a member of their support system.”

If Bennett loses her job, she’s also concerned about what it would mean for teachers, who would have more piled on their plates. “Now the teacher has to become a social worker and do something that they’re not trained to do,” she said.

The quick transition to remote learning in March proved just how adaptive school counselors are, said Bennett. After school buildings closed, she spent the first couple of weeks helping families get adjusted to their new normal. Sometimes, that meant assisting them with the online learning platform Google Classroom; other times, it meant reading books to children through the screen.

“I did not have a moment to fully process what was happening, and I think I’m still processing what happened,” she said. “I think we just had to roll with the punches and kind of just get this up.”

Many counselors also had to switch gears to more grief work, supporting people from a distance as they figured out how to grieve the losses during a time when large funerals and wakes could not take place. While Bennett doesn’t know of any of her students who lost an immediate relative to COVID-19, many nonetheless suffered new anxieties. One child frequently blurted out that the virus would kill everyone, she said. Another remarked that the coronavirus “ruined everything” — noting the fifth grade graduation ceremony and prom had been canceled.

Parents felt it, too. They expressed worry about everything from going to the grocery store to keeping their children occupied during long days at home to not being able to provide for their family’s basic needs amid job losses.

“I think there were just a lot of questions and not so many answers, and I think that created a lot of angst,” said Bennett.

For 11-year-old Yuleiniz, quarantine and remote learning came with increased worries about people getting sick or even dying, her mother said. Some days, she didn’t want to get out of bed, much less turn her camera on during virtual school sessions. And Yuleiniz, who received virtual counseling sessions while learning from home, sometimes worried about whether her school work was up to par and if she’d advance to the next grade.

Having schedules and routines helped students struggling with anxiety, Bennett said. She had students treat remote school days as if they were in-person days by getting dressed and doing their normal routines. And when students were in sessions with her, she asked them to sit up, as opposed to lying underneath their covers.

With the upcoming school year fast approaching, counselors will likely still be dealing with many of the same issues that arose this past school year. Bennett’s biggest concern is that many students will return with lingering trauma.

“It’s more than money to me,” Bennett said about her work. “I care about these kids tremendously. And so even if I find another job, what happens to P.S. 274?”

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