Several times a week, Ericka Santiago-Diaz can be found driving around her low-income, underserved school community in New Jersey’s Asbury Park with bags of school supplies, replacement technology, food and donated clothing in the back seat to deliver to students.

At some homes, she translates school emails into Spanish and answers technical questions. Then she gets down to what has become the meat of her job as a school social worker at College Achieve Greater Asbury Park Charter School: making sure her students and their families are coping with the multiple stresses of the pandemic.

“We do counseling in school, but sometimes the student needs a little bit more than that school counseling,” Santiago-Diaz said.

That’s why, even though half the school’s students still learn remotely, Santiago-Diaz and two other social workers, along with the two school resource officers, spend half their work day doing in-person home visits. Before heading out, they call families to see what supplies are needed, including supplies like papers, pencils and crayons, back-up Chromebook chargers or food and warm clothing for kids. In school-provided gloves and masks, they try to meet students and parents outside on front porches or at a neighborhood park to follow social distancing rules.

Prior to the pandemic, the school had one full-time social worker on staff, said Jodi McInerney, the charter school’s executive director and principal. While the school had planned to hire a second, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic made it clear that students, many of whom already faced stressors like poverty and gang violence. At College Achieve Asbury, the majority of the students are Black or Hispanic and over 90 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The school also has a significant number of English language learners and students in special education.

“Sometimes the student needs a little bit more than that school counseling.”  said Ericka Santiago-Diaz, school social worker.
“This year, we felt that is was even more critical,” she said. “We really increased our services when Covid started in March.”

The unprecedented events of the past year have taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of students of every age. Isolated from their friends and teachers, many students cited “feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious” as the number one obstacle to learning, according to a new survey by YouthTruth, a national nonprofit that focuses on student voices in education. Distractions at home, family responsibilities and worries about their health and that of their families were the other two big obstacles. Hispanic or Latinx, Black, African American and multiracial students, on average, reported dealing with more obstacles than white or Asian students.

While some districts have prioritized the mental health of their students, Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists, said such districts are the exception.

“Even before the pandemic and all of the added stress of that, a lot of communities were struggling to meet the needs of their students because there simply weren’t enough professionals,” she said.

Now, remote learning creates added challenges, she said, because it’s harder for teachers to recognize “signs and symptoms of mental health problems of the students that they serve.” Previously, if teachers were worried about a student, they could ask school mental health professionals to come into a classroom to observe. Seeing students only through a screen makes it “much more difficult to reach families,” especially those in underserved communities who might have limited broadband or technology access, she said.

Although funding was tight, last fall College Achieve hired Santiago-Diaz to join its head social worker on the staff. Now, one of the school’s substitute teachers is also training to be a social worker, and will join the team as a full-time social worker once he graduates in June. McInerney said the school tried to be “as cost conscious as possible and save in other areas.” Last year, instead of purchasing new office or classroom furniture, the faculty agreed to repurpose older furniture and get used furniture from a company that no longer needed it, for example.

Each of the school’s 327 students is assigned to one of the three social workers. Students can check in with their assigned social worker any time during the day, and the social workers also pop in on virtual classes to see how students are doing. Santiago-Diaz said sometimes they’ll send a private link via Google Meet to students who seem to be having trouble. Students can jump into a quick counseling session to help them get back on track.

In addition to adding staff, the charter expanded its social-emotional curriculum and individual counseling sessions to include more wraparound services. Every day, Santiago-Diaz also hosts a “lunch bunch,” which allows younger students to get together virtually to talk and play games. Teachers recommend students who may be having behavioral problems or who just need more social interactions for the program.

The charter also increased the counseling it offered outside of school hours, and included this support over summer vacation, McInerney said. From Monday to Friday all summer, students could schedule a live call with one of the social workers. In the fall, the school added family hours in the evenings and on Saturday mornings for family therapy sessions. This winter, for the first time, College Achieve Asbury also continued counseling services over the winter break for struggling families.

Because the school began providing in-person instruction in October for children who opted in, it now provides counseling services both in school and virtually. The counselors have open office hours, whether students are in the building or at home. “If they need a break, they’re welcome to come into my office … I provide them that small space for them to just decompress if they need to,” Santiago-Diaz said.

With parents’ consent, social workers also take students on trips to the park or a restaurant to talk in a safe space outside the house. “We’re dealing with little kids and we’re dealing with youth, they need to feel connected,” Santiago-Diaz said. “They need to feel that you’re one of them. You’re not just a teacher, but you’re also a human.”

Sometimes, a child’s stress signals something more serious at home. Often, home visits are more “a matter of checking on the parents” and asking them how they’re doing, how they’re handling the stress, whether they have a job or have food, Santiago-Diaz said.

“Sometimes they break down,” Santiago-Diaz said. “I have parents on speed dial. They know I’m here for them.”

College Achieve Asbury’s services go far beyond those offered by most schools. School staff responsible for student mental health are both in short supply and stretched thin nationwide. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 43,190 school social workers nationwide. While professional standards recommend at least one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students, a 2019 ACLU study found that school-based mental health program weren’t close to meeting the need even before the pandemic. The study revealed that not even one state met the student-to-social worker ratio and only three states met the student-to-counselor ratio.

The ratio of students to school psychologists nationwide is approximately 1 to 1,400, said Strobach, of the National Association of School Psychologists. In total, her group estimates there are approximately 35,000 practicing school psychologists. To fill the gap, digital mental health programs like Empower U and Erika’s Lighthouse have launched on-line programs to help schools support students’ social-emotional wellbeing.

Without support from the federal government and long-term investment at the local and state level mental health professionals, many schools, particularly school districts with fewer resources, won’t be able to provide these services, Strobach said.

Some states, like New Jersey, are looking to help schools during the pandemic. A package of five bills is currently being considered in the New Jersey General Assembly to address the shortages of mental health professionals in school districts across the state.

Even with three social workers, College Achieve Asbury can’t address the incredible need for service this year. To help meet these needs, the school’s leaders have asked every adult in the building to pitch in to check on students.

Strobach said schools everywhere should do the same, whether or not they have mental health workers on staff.

“I think it’s something that all schools should be doing for all kids,” Strobach said. “One of the strongest assets and strongest predictors of student success is that they have a positive relationship with an adult in the building.”

Originally featured in The Hechinger Report – Author Javeria Salman