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 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.
For social worker Jara Rijs, who works at Windham Center School, where more than half of its pre-K through fifth-grade students qualify for subsidized lunch, the job responsibilities bleed well beyond the job description, particularly since the pandemic hit.
As many in her school community face trauma either induced or exacerbated by the pandemic, Rijs says she considers every one of the estimated 250 students at her elementary school part of her caseload.
Beyond providing clinical support to students with individual education plans, in a given day, Rijs might also meet with a student struggling with a family loss or divorce, connect to a community health agency to check availability, lead a staff discussion on self-care, or even don the school’s “froggy” mascot costume—a symbol of the school’s “Froggy Four” character development program.
Fun and games aside, Rijs takes a serious tone when discussing the state of her student’s mental health.
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.
Earlier this month, a state task force led by the Department of Public Health identified 157 schools most in need of health care and mental health care services, with Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven at the top of the list. The task force report is designed to provide lawmakers with data to be used during the 2022 legislative session.
This week, Democratic lawmakers held a press 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 8th grade, and maintaining a relationship with a community agency for psychiatric evaluations.
But the community’s needs are significant. Rivera says several families have lost family members—many of them parents or guardians—during the pandemic. The homeless student population has increased. Job loss, food security and financial insecurity are running high. Consequently, Rivera says, the district has seen a huge uptick in student depression, anxiety and related behavioral concerns.
Windham’s Rijs knows the feeling. In a school year during which she’s never before seen students so mentally fragile, she says, the district eventually secured a one-year contract with a second social worker at her school.
“I hope they keep the second social work position. But I worry that it’s a position that could be eliminated,” Rijs said.
Obstacles to hiring more school-based social workers
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.
A lack of recognition of social workers’ value to schools may be the cause of district-wide decisions like the one in 2015 by the Avon School District to eliminate its social workers and replace them with additional school psychologists, which met with public outcry from parents and former students. Catherine Lewis, an Avon parent and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, was among those who denounced the district’s decision to eliminate social workers. “They do a lot of intangibles,” Lewis said. “They know the pulse of the school.”
Some social workers hope that the pandemic’s silver lining will mean greater recognition of their profession, and, subsequently, additional resources. “Legislation is talking about students’ health more than ever,” Rijs said. “We are finally in the limelight.”
This story was originally published Feb. 17, 2022, by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.