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NYC’s plan to hire 500 full-time social workers is still short of the need: analysis

A teacher works at a desk with a young student with braided hair wearing a white dress shirt in the classroom.
A teacher at P.S. 398 in Crown Heights works with a student.
Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

Flush with federal stimulus money, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed hiring 500 more social workers as children return to buildings carrying the trauma from the pandemic’s grip on New York City.

The hiring spree would ensure every school has at least one full-time social worker or access to a school-based mental health clinic, city officials have said.

But that plan still leaves 75 schools without a full-time social worker, according to a new analysis from the Independent Budget Office, or the IBO.

Currently 448 schools lack any social worker, found the IBO analysis, conducted at the request of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. That includes 25 schools in District 75, which serves children with disabilities who need more intensive supports. Another 166 schools share social workers, and the city would need to hire an additional 127 social workers in order for those schools to each have their own full-time staffer.

Nearly all of the schools that share social workers get 25% or less of that professional’s time, the IBO found.

“Looking at the distribution by borough, more than 100 schools each in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan do not currently have any social workers — together the three boroughs account for over three-quarters of the total number of social workers that would be needed,” stated the IBO letter, based on the most recent education department data detailing the number of social workers employed by nation’s largest public school system.

The education department disputed the IBO’s findings, saying that the analysis didn’t take into account campuses that are served by one of the city’s 200 school-based mental health clinics. The type of staff at each of these clinics varies but can include social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

Those clinics can serve campuses with multiple schools. Schools sharing a clinic will get a full-time “mental health clinician – whether that be a social worker or someone from a clinic,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the education department.

The education department declined to say how much the social worker hiring initiative will cost, but city officials have previously said these new hires, plus an initiative to conduct socio-emotional screenings of children at every school, will cost a total $91 million.

“Caring for the social and emotional needs of our students is our focus this fall and that is why every single NYC public school will receive mental health supports from a full time social worker on staff or professionals from a school-based mental health clinic,” Styer said in a statement. “We appreciate the advocacy of the IBO on this critical issue, but our historic investment in hiring over 500 social workers and school-based clinics is specifically aimed at meeting the gap they identified.”

Sarita Subramanian, an education policy analyst for the IBO who helped author the findings, said their analysis was based on an annual report released by the education department that describes how many guidance counselors and social workers are employed by the city. That report does not list out which schools have mental health clinics.

Hiring more full-time social workers for schools has been a flashpoint in city budget fights for many years. Over the past two school years, the city has hired 127 more full-time social workers, according to the IBO. The IBO’s analysis found that Queens has 111 schools without any social worker — the most of any borough — followed closely by Brooklyn and Manhattan.

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