2020 | Opinion

Opinion: Mental health of MCPS students must get our attention

Under current structure, caseloads are too high

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The recent deaths of three MCPS students by suicide is devastating to families, teaching staff, mental health professionals and our entire community.

Just as we are all in the midst of a pandemic health crisis, an imminent mental health crisis is impacting our young people. It has been steadily emerging over the last 15 years. It is threatening to become an even more profound and catastrophic health risk for our students in the months ahead.

While MCPS has begun taking a more direct approach in addressing the overall wellness of students with the advent of the Be Well 365 initiative, the fact nevertheless remains that our students are suffering, and something more must be done.

Currently, in MCPS, each school-based school psychologist typically serves a caseload of approximately 1,800 students, far above the ratio of 1:500 recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists.

Additionally, each elementary school counselor currently serves approximately 600 students, far from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommended ratio of 1:250 for K-12 schools.

With such large caseloads, psychologists and counselors are stretched too thin to provide the dynamic, flexible and individualized social, emotional and mental wellness supports and care that students deserve and need.

Pupil Personnel Workers (PPWs) — master educators specifically trained in breaking down barriers to education and in supporting students and families in accessing needed community resources, including mental health resources — are also serving high caseloads. They are typically over 50% more than the ratio of 2,000 students per each PPW that is recommended by the Maryland Association of Pupil Personnel.

This ratio does not allow PPWs to regularly reach out at the rate required to ensure families are safe, healthy, and have access to needed services.

The stark realities of living in the time of COVID-19 have only heightened the mental health concerns young people face. Children and young adults are extremely social and prosper through regular ongoing interactions with their peers.

Yet, the requirements of sustained social distancing can result in feelings of social isolation. Children become vulnerable to increased emotional stress, especially when combined with the collective trauma living through this pandemic is creating for our entire community.

As demonstrated in a recent EdSurge article, “The Next Pandemic: Mental Health” (Minn and Hau, 2020), the psychological effects of the current pandemic threaten to exacerbate the need for adequate mental health supports.

The potential epic proportions of the looming mental health crisis created not only by the ongoing stress and trauma of isolation, but also by the disastrous effects of pervasive economic uncertainty, underscore the dire need for adequate staffing to address the social and emotional well-being of our students.

School psychologists, school counselors and social workers (who support students in certain special education programs) have been holding virtual meetings with students to bring them targeted social emotional resources.

However, students are not getting the daily in-person support that attending school on site provides. Not having teachers as “first finders and first responders” observing the emotional temperature of their students interferes with the rapid recognition of mental wellness concerns and hampers staff in providing timely, adequate responses to them.

The “Waymaking” video series from MCPS provides valuable information to families, students and the community at large. But as the school system continues with its continuity of learning and prepares to implement its recovery plan, meeting the mental health needs and supporting the social emotional development of our students is critically important.

Regular outreach to students and families by school psychologists, school counselors, PPWs and social workers must continue throughout the summer, as well as into the academic year. But to do so effectively requires appropriate staffing.

It is encouraging that members of the County Council and the Board of Education recognize that there is reason to be concerned about students’ social development and mental well-being.

Now, that concern must be acted upon with urgency. MCPS must provide sufficient staffing and the Board of Education must demand that the County Council provide the funding required, so that our students can be socially engaged and behaviorally healthy, and ultimately reach their fullest potential.

Jennifer A. Jones
School Counselor
Lake Seneca Elementary School

Melanie M. Travers
Pupil Personnel Worker
Julius West Middle School
Earle B. Wood Middle School
Flower Valley Elementary School
Bayard Rustin Elementary School
Ritchie Park Elementary School

Matthew Kamins
School Psychologist
Spark M. Matsunaga Elementary School
Diamond Elementary School
Longview School