Crises Demand Counselors: Pandemic Underscores Need for More School Counselors, Mental Health Professionals

Key Takeaways

  • School closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic mean that students are not receiving the mental health support afforded to them when they are physically present at school.
  • Many students now at home are exposed to increased trauma and will return with greater mental health needs.
  • The state should leverage new federal funding and further invest state funding to support student mental health and meet the challenge of the pandemic.

The novel coronavirus and the subsequent school closures guarantee that Georgia’s students will reenter school in a different world than the one they left in mid-March. When students return, they should be met with an increased adult presence to address their mental and emotional needs.

Before pausing session, Georgia lawmakers added $25 million for school counseling in order to lower the counselor-to-student ratio to the state-mandated 1:450. This budget has not yet been approved by the state Senate. In response to the pandemic, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included $13.3 billion for K-12 schools, an estimated $448 million of which will be allocated to Georgia. This fact sheet outlines the importance of counselors, specifically in the time following a pandemic, in order to encourage school leaders to leverage this federal funding. State leaders should also add to, or at the very least avoid cutting, the increased allocation to school counselors for the same reasons.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Children’s Socio-Emotional Health

  • For many students across the state, more time at home during the pandemic could mean increased exposure to trauma. Shelter-in-place orders have led to dramatic increases in rates of domestic violence.
  • Children process many circumstances by the reactions of their parents. Responses to the virus and/or economic hardships caused by rising unemployment can lead children to exhibit behaviors akin to toxic stress.
  • The effects of major disruptions to a child’s educational and home life can endure for years afterward, particularly for low-income children and children of color.[1]

Importance of School Counselors to Mental Health

  • Research supports the value of lowering the student to counselor ratio in order to meet students’ socio-emotional needs.[2] Various studies have highlighted positive effects with English-language learners, rural students, low-income students and children exhibiting aggressive behavior or actions associated with depression.[3]
  • Higher numbers of student counselors per school are associated with lower absenteeism, fewer suspensions and higher graduation rates.
  • The effects of school counselors on student behavior and academic outcomes are financially efficient compared to alternative education polices with similar effects.[4]

Recommendations

Every public school student in Georgia has experienced a significant disruption to their lives due to the coronavirus. Without intervention, the harmful effects will be felt most strongly by already-vulnerable student groups. School counselors and mental health professionals have shown the ability to help students meet socio-emotional needs. State and local leaders must serve Georgia’s children by:

  • Leveraging federal dollars provided by the CARES Act. The Georgia Department of Education has signaled the desire to direct CARES Act funding to school districts to address, among other applications, mental health and “at-risk” student populations. School leaders must prioritize mental health as students are experiencing varying levels of trauma.
  • Protecting and bolstering school counselor funding. In future budget negotiations, state leaders will be faced with difficult decisions on how to endure predicted record revenue shortfalls. The $25 million allocation for additional school counselors currently in the FY 2021 budget cannot be considered for removal. The American School Counselors Association recommends a school counselor ratio of 1:250; the new allocation would only fund 1:450. If schools cannot even afford one counselor for every 450 children, they do not have the professionals needed to address the coming student needs. Georgia’s leaders should see mental health as a priority that demands funding moving forward.
  • Calling for additional federal assistance. Even the best-prepared state does not have the reserves available to meet the oncoming recession. During the years following the Great Recession, Georgia was given over $1.6 billion by the federal government to meet K-12 education funding shortfalls. The $448 million in the CARES Act will cover a fraction of the expected funding needs for Georgia’s schools. State and local leaders should call for significant additional dollars in order to support the state’s children.

Endnotes

[1] Fothergill, A., & Peek, L. (2015). Children of Katrina. University of Texas Press.

[2] Curtis, R., Van Horne, J. W., Robertson, P., & Karvonen, M. (2010). Outcomes of a school-wide positive behavioral support program. Professional School Counseling, 13(3), 159-164. doi: 10.1177/2156759X1001300303; Reback, R. (2010). Noninstructional spending improves noncognitive outcomes: Discontinuity evidence from a unique elementary school counselor financing system. Education Finance and Policy5(2), 105-137.

[3] Steen, S., Liu, X., Shi, Q., Rose, J., Merino, G. (2018). Promoting school adjustment for English-language learners through group work. Professional School Counseling, 21 (1), 1-10. doi: 10.1177/2156759X18777096; Bardhoshi, G., Duncan, K., Erford, B. (2018). Effect of a specialized classroom counseling intervention on increasing self-efficacy among first-grade rural students. Professional School Counseling, 21(1), 12-25. doi: 10.5330/1096-2409-21.1.12; Lapan, R. T., Gysbers, N. C., Bragg, S., & Pierce, M. E. (2012). Missouri professional school counselors: Ratios matter, especially in high-poverty schools. Professional School Counseling, 16(2), 108-116. doi: 10.1177/2156759X0001600207; Amatea, E. S., Thompson, I. A., Rankin-Clemons, L., & Ettinger, M. L. (2010). Becoming partners: A school-based group intervention for families of young children who are disruptive. Journal of School Counseling, 8(36). Retrieved from http://www.jsc.montana.edu/articles/v8n36.pdf; Erickson, A., & Abel, N. R. (2013). A high school counselor’s leadership in providing school-wide screenings for depression and enhancing suicide awareness. Professional School Counseling, 16(5), 283-289. doi: 10.1177/2156759X1201600501

[4] Carrell, S. E., & Hoekstra, M. (2014). Are school counselors an effective educational input? Economic Letters, 125, 66-69. doi: 10.1016/j.econlet.2014.07.020.

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