NYC plans to expand ‘community schools,’ hire more social workers in neighborhoods hit hard by COVID-19

In the wake of COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday announced an expansion of the community schools program, which provides students with additional social services and resources. The city will also hire more social workers and administer mental health screenings to students. (Edwin J. Torres / Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City’s plan to help students and schools deal with the emotional toll from the coronavirus pandemic continued to take shape on Monday, with Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing a series of initiatives designed to support mental health starting next September.

The education department plans to flood schools in 27 neighborhoods hard hit by COVID-19 with additional resources by expanding the highly-regarded Community Schools initiative, hiring 150 social workers, and administering a five-minute mental health screen to students in hopes of quickly detecting serious social emotional issues. 

City leaders said the initiatives will reach 380,000 students across approximately 830 schools.

De Blasio did not provide a price tag for the slew of new initiatives, nor did he explain how he expected to cover the costs in the midst of a budget crisis, though he hoped federal money could help. He said the support was essential for the city’s children. 

“They’re going through trauma. They’re going through a lot of pain, and they need our help,” the mayor said. “We will make it a budget priority to provide this support in the 27 neighborhoods that were hardest hit by COVID. Whatever it takes, we’re going to make it a budget priority even if it means we have to reduce spending in other areas.” 

The federal stimulus bill which was agreed to over the weekend calls for $54 billion for public schools. That is about four times what they received from the coronavirus relief bill passed in March. Still, de Blasio said it falls far short of what’s needed. 

“It’s not a stimulus. It’s a short-term survival plan,” he said. 

Here’s what we know about the city’s plans for making sure students are ready to learn next school year.  

Community schools expansion

The mayor announced that 27 additional schools will join more than 260 others in the city’s community schools program next year. That will allow them to partner with local organizations to address unmet physical and emotional needs that can get in the way of learning. The program provides extra resources, like providing family counseling, access to medical services, or help getting food. 

A recent analysis of the program by the Rand Corporation found that community schools led to improvements in math, attendance, and graduation rates. The Brookings Institution last week wrote an open letter to the Biden administration calling for an expansion of community schools as a way to “emerge from the pandemic with a new and better way of schooling — one that meets student and family needs and addresses systemic failures to provide equitable educational opportunities for all.”

Community schools have been a cornerstone of the mayor’s education agenda, with New York City home to the nation’s largest network of them. Yet, de Blasio cut the program this year by $3 million (after initially passing a budget to cut it by $9.1 million). Last fiscal year, these schools received about $222 million in city, state and federal dollars, according to city records.

Organizations that partner with community schools are concerned about what’s going to happen next year with the existing partnerships. Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, executive director of Counseling In Schools, which places counselors in high needs schools, including several community schools, said he is concerned about whether cuts to existing community schools will be restored. 

“I’m encouraged by the announcement, even while my head is spinning around what will be the implementation strategy,” he said. “You can’t take away money from one program to feed the same program somewhere else.”

Phoebe Boyer, the CEO of Children’s Aid, which helps run 21 community schools in New York City, echoed those concerns. She added that there needs to be better coordination with community schools partners, who were caught by surprise by the announcement. She also wondered why the city doesn’t move more quickly to provide more students with the supports that community schools do. 

“Quite frankly, we can’t wait until September,” she said. “We have the entire spring and summer to make the most of this and to help with kids with what they need.” 

More social workers

The city will add 150 social workers so that every school in the identified hard-hit neighborhoods will have access to one full-time. Schools that are currently without a full-time social worker will be prioritized, officials said. 

It’s unclear what the ratio of social workers to students will ultimately be in the targeted schools. The city pledged to make mental health supports a priority this year for students making up courses in summer school, and then rolled out staffing plans that called for one counselor or social worker for every 1,045 students. The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and even lower ratios in schools with high levels of need. (Though that recommendation appears to have little empirical backing.)

Advocates have consistently demanded more social workers for New York City schools. This year, city’s final budget dedicated $5 million to that end. 

Dahill-Fuchel, of Counseling in Schools, urged the city to understand who already has access to counseling to make sure they’re targeting those who don’t.

“I’m sure there are pockets of mental health deserts,” he said. “Let’s make sure every kid has access to a good counselor.”

Mental health screenings

Another prong of the city’s plans calls for an “evidence-based” mental health screening of all students entering school in the affected neighborhoods next year. The screening will help assess how students are faring emotionally. 

Results will be analyzed by a school team, officials said, who can arrange for additional supports when needed. It’s unclear what kind of training will be provided to those administering and analyzing the screens. 

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said the screening is a five-minute questionnaire. 

“The whole point is that as there are signs that a child may need additional support, we will absolutely waste no time in connecting that child and their family with those additional supports,” Carranza said. “This may also be a good opportunity for this questionnaire, this check, to indicate that the child is doing fine and that they’re robust and that they’re adapting well.”

Deputy Chancellor LaShawn Robinson said the questions will ask students about “their thoughts and feelings about school, themselves, and their relationships with others.” 

For some students, the screen might reveal they need some more individual attention or school-structured interaction with peers, officials said. Others might need more intensive support provided through a partnership with Health + Hospitals, which places a designated staff person at schools in the hard hit areas to coordinate directly with the public hospitals, ensuring speedy referrals so children can receive therapy, psychiatric evaluations, medication management, and other clinical services.

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