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School Social Workers Are Begging Us To Remember Their Vital Role

Grief, loss of employment, lack of housing, food insecurity: This is the worst time for school social workers to be limited in what they can do for kids.

For many kids, school is their safe haven — the place they can get a hot meal, access computers for homework, and find social-emotional support. As schools across the country weigh options for re-opening fully or partially in person, or considering going back to virtual learning in the face of constantly changing directives and rising Covid numbers, social workers want to make sure schools adapt and reimagine their vital roles so students in need don’t fall through the cracks.

While the pandemic has shifted the way school social workers do their work, the heart of what they do remains the same: showing up for their students when they need them. “Social workers interface with teachers to determine which students and families are in need,” says Karen Gross, an instructor at Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work in Washington, D.C., who explains that school social workers do vital work, playing a role teachers cannot. “Social workers try to recognize the underlying causes of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors they are seeing,” she says. They also support teachers by working with families on issues ranging from food scarcity to homelessness and parental addiction: “They play a central role in helping teachers understand the students in their midst.”

Nicara McKenzie, a school social worker at an urban high school in Memphis, Tennessee, has been doing what she can as her school has been fully remote since the start of the pandemic. “We’ve been conducting observations mostly in [virtual] classes,” she says. “If students appear to be visibly upset or overwhelmed, we utilize the chat feature to assess next steps.” Her school’s social work team also hosts Zoom office hours for students and trains teachers to incorporate socio-emotional learning into their lessons. Gross says these resources are even more critical than before.

"Regardless what format, schools offer unparalleled access to students to address both academic and mental health needs. The hiring of sufficient numbers of Specialized Instructional Support Personnel (SISP) i.e. School Social Workers, school psychologists, counselors and nurses to address the wide range of issues presented by students, families and staff especially during this pandemic will be imperative." -New York State School Social Workers’ Association, August 7, 2020Sean Locke/Stocksy

Research, including a November 2020 study in the journal Psychiatry Research, overwhelmingly supports social workers’ calls for policymakers to plan for the increased social and mental health needs of children and teens during the pandemic, as well as after. And the needs don’t stop there. The number of children without enough food to eat is 14 times higher now during the coronavirus pandemic than it was last year. Yet it’s right now, during times where students face added challenges such as grief, loss of employment, lack of housing, food insecurity, and more, that social workers are limited in what they can do.

“Prior to the pandemic, the assessment of needs came through physical observations of mannerisms, appearance, and through dialogue,” McKenzie says. “When engaging with students in person, it provides a more comforting way of uncovering needs.” Social workers also typically rely on referrals from teachers, she explains, with teachers usually seeing students in person every day. Now, not only has virtual schooling eliminated many referrals that come from teacher observation, but students in need are often the same students with low virtual attendance because of obligations and problems at home.

A 2018 study in the journal Children & Schools notes that school social workers, unlike other school staff, are "in a unique position to effectively intervene" because of their “placement at the intersection of the individual, home, school, and community.” Yet, even before the pandemic, 47 states didn’t meet the student to mental-health expert ratio recommended by the U.S. Department of Education, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). On top of these issues, Black students in particular endure the added trauma of vicarious racism.

There’s a big concern right now that kids with disabilities are not getting the help they need.

School psychology services are also in limbo thanks to the pandemic. Dr. Rebecca Branstetter, a school psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area says though school social workers mostly work with families who need social support such as housing, food, and family issues, school psychologists also work with a vulnerable group of students. “School psychs work more with kids with special needs or kids suspected of having disabilities,” she says. “We’re in a weird space right now because normally we’d be testing kids for special education eligibility, but about half of us can’t see kids one to one. There’s a big concern right now that kids with disabilities are not getting the help they need.”

Gross says school districts need to rethink what social work services look like in schools. “Walking the halls and traditional office hours won't work and open sessions for drop-ins, but there are ways to find students in need with wonderful partnering between teachers, school nurses, social workers, and administrators,” she says.

College Achieve Asbury Park in New Jersey is one high school that is rising to the challenge of helping students in need during the pandemic. Kristin Acosta, a spokesperson for College Achieve Asbury Park, says the high school is investing in student well-being and mental health by expanding the role of social workers to provide daily home visits and frequent online check-ins with students. With parent permission, social workers get socially distanced face time with students and are able to help troubleshoot Zoom issues, assess the need for school supplies and other resources, and talk about loneliness and depression.

Desiree Mitchell, a social worker at College Achieve Asbury Park in New Jersey, says they’re also taking a virtual all-hands-on-deck approach during these stressful and isolating times. “We’re using technology to meet with students every day with no other goal than to talk, to let them know they’ve got a community that cares for them,” she says. “We’re working with teachers and other staff members to know how to recognize the signs of students that are feeling overwhelmed or are facing other challenges on top of the pandemic.”

The investment in student mental health seems to be paying off. Acosta says student attendance and engagement are both up.

Social and mental health experts in U.S. schools were already underutilized and not readily available. As schools plan whether to reopen physical buildings fully, remain virtual, or opt for some hybrid of the two, the need for social workers and mental health experts moves to the top of the list. It’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one, says Gross. “The idea is to recognize the differences and come up with new strategic approaches to enabling student success.”