The pandemic has been rough on everyone, particularly from an emotional and mental health standpoint. But as parents and educators, we aren’t always aware of how our children are absorbing this impact. And unfortunately, most schools lack the counseling and support staff needed to help.
The School Counselor Shortage is Real
We’re facing a bit of a perfect storm in the world of education and childhood development. This storm is underscored by two primary issues:
- As a result of the pandemic, children are dealing with more depression and anxiety than ever before. For the first time in their lives, many children are facing prolonged hardship and emotional burdens. Many are being told “no” for the first time in their lives – no to spending time with friends, no to playing sports, and no to the freedoms they once knew.
- The longer the pandemic stretches on, the more school districts have seen their budgets slashed and stymied. This has put a strain on retaining and hiring counselors to meet students’ mental health needs.
While there’s no easy solution, it’s clear that something must be done about the lack of qualified school counselors sooner rather than later. Otherwise, acute mental health issues could turn into chronic and long-term issues.
According to data collected by the American School Counselor Association, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is somewhere in the range of 464-to-1. But that might be stretching it. Because in reality, one in five students – about 8 million of the entire student population in the country – goes to a school without a school counselor on staff. And 3 million of these students lack access to social workers, school psychologists, and other types of support staff.
Adding even more concern to this snowballing issue is a study that suggests the prolonged pandemic will undo months of academic gains and leave millions of students trailing behind. It’s predicted that reading and math scores will drop significantly. On top of that, children dealing with economic stress at home and the emotional toll of losing loved ones need mental health support more than ever.
To make matters worse, budgets for this year (and likely even 2022) are expected to remain suppressed. Revenues have dropped, fundraising is down, and state and federal relief packages will likely taper off the longer the pandemic continues.
Traditionally, there’s a reluctance for schools to hire new employees during times of economic distress. But many superintendents and school principals around the country are recognizing the grave need for counselors. The difficulty lies in finding them. More specifically, it has to do with how to afford them.
How Schools Can Find and Hire Qualified Counselors
There’s no magic potion or copy-and-paste strategy that can be used to solve the school counselor shortage here in the United States. There are, however, plenty of recommendations, suggestions, and techniques that, when layered together and strategically implemented, may be able to address the issue at hand proactively. Let’s explore a few ideas:
1. More Lobbying for Importance of Counselors
The issue begins with making everyone aware of just how important counselors are. Because until the powers that be – meaning government officials and those in charge of the purse strings – understand the role that counselors play, they’ll continue to de-prioritize this all-important position.
2. Better Use of Federal Funding and Relief Packages
While the CARES Act provided some money for schools to leverage and use toward mental health and “at-risk” student populations, allocation of federal dollars has been as strategic as it could be (in most districts).
School districts should plan ahead and be more strategic with their plans for future rounds of relief – mandating that a certain percentage of money go toward the hiring of qualified counselors and other support staff.
3. Calls for Additional/Targeted Federal Assistance
The CARES Act was a good start, but most school districts still have dried up funds and huge disparities between what they actually need to support the needs of their students. More lobbying for federal assistance is a must.
4. Improved Training
Hiring is half the battle. Because of budget cuts, schools that are able to bring on counselors will have to be smart with who they hire. One strategy is to hire newer counselors with less experience at entry-level pay grades and enhance their skill sets.
There are a number of advanced counseling training solutions on the market, including the VALT video capture software that allows for real-time clinical skills assessments in discreet and user-friendly formats. According to Intelligent Video Solutions, it’s one of the top ways to observe counseling sessions so that they can be improved upon.
5. Resource Libraries
For schools that are understaffed and don’t have the financial resources to make up for it with additional counselors and therapists, supplementary resources can add some value.
While nothing replaces connecting a student with a qualified counselor, building out a counseling “library” with videos, downloads, books, and interactive online resources can prove helpful – particularly in today’s remote setting.
6. Partnerships With Outside Groups
While certainly not plentiful – particularly in times such as these – there are outside groups, charities, and non-profits that may be able to provide supplementary counseling resources for low-income schools that have a need for therapists and counselors to serve their students.
For example, the Catholic Charities School Counseling Program is designed to connect schools with qualified counselors who can serve students free of charge. (It’s a needs-based program, so certain requirements must be met.)
There are a variety of other programs and groups – some local and others national – so each school and district will have to be strategic with finding opportunities. It’s about finding the right fit for the right students. Sometimes these programs can be run through the school, while other times schools have to connect students with assistance on an individualized basis.
Adding it All Up
This pandemic has wreaked havoc on every area of our lives. And while we often see it as an “adult” problem – affecting our health, jobs, and livelihood – it’s important to remember that children are not immune from the ill-effects.
By addressing the shortage of qualified school counselors, we can proactively confront issues of stress, anxiety, and emotional distress and finally provide children with the support they need to learn, develop, and mature.