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CT: Shortage of school social workers; "demand for services swelling"

Feb 21, 2022, PBS: Surging behavioral health care needs for children put strain on school social workers

On paper, the social worker’s role at public K-12 schools is straightforward: to support a caseload of students with special needs to thrive in an often-challenging academic setting. But ask a social worker employed in a public school these days and they’re likely to tell a much different story…. In Connecticut, as elsewhere across the country, the pandemic has exacerbated just how thin school-based social workers are stretched, with the demand for services swelling. The number of children needing behavioral health treatment at children’s hospitals has surged, resulting in long waits for inpatient and community-based care. In January, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy declared a “national youth mental health crisis,” acknowledging the pandemic’s toll on children. Connecticut’s ratio of social worker to student is 580 students to one social worker; the national professional standard recommends one social worker for every 250 students. The standard was developed before school-aged children endured months of isolation from the regular daily routine of school and the broad, adverse ramifications of the pandemic….

Last week, Democratic lawmakers held a news conference highlighting their top priorities for the current legislative session and acknowledging the “mental health fallout” from the pandemic. Lawmakers plan to introduce several measures supporting children’s mental health, including increasing funding for school social workers. Stephen A. Wanczyk-Karp, executive director of Connecticut’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said: “I’ve been in this field since 1977. And I’ve never seen this level of interest for social work.” Unable to keep up with demand Even in districts with seemingly adequate mental health resources, some schools are in crisis mode. Carrie Rivera, assistant director of mental health services for New London Public Schools, describes the district’s efforts to ensure adequate student support: increasing the number of social workers at the secondary level, adding social-emotional programming to include a mindfulness program for pre-K through eighth grade, and maintaining a relationship with a community agency for psychiatric evaluations….

Amid the enormous need for school-based social workers, whose many roles include “first responders” to student crises, leaders in the field say the job is often misunderstood. Wanczyk-Karp says that frequently they are perceived as interchangeable with other mental health professionals such as school psychologists, whose primary responsibilities include conducting student psychological and academic assessments and guiding students’ academic success….


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