Virginia is funding more school counselors and support staff as student mental health needs increase

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As students return to the classroom, Virginia is putting millions in additional funding towards more school counselors and other support staff. 

The new policies from the General Assembly are being implemented at a time when pediatricians across the state are reporting an alarming decline in the mental, behavioral, academic and physical health of their patients.

A law sponsored by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) that passed in the 2021 special session invested an additional $50 million per year to increase school support staff as recommended by the Virginia Board of Education’s Standards of Quality. That’s down from an initial proposal of $1 billion per year. 

The legislation requires districts to provide at least three specialized student support positions per 1,000 students. Those may include nurses, social workers and mental health professionals. 

The boost in resources follows years of declining state funding. Since 2009, support staff in Virginia’s schools decreased by nearly 2,000 positions even as enrollment increased by 55,000 students, according to a press release from McClellan’s office. 

“The declines were four times greater in divisions with the highest share of students of color,” the release continued.

Lead Educational Diagnostician Dr. Felecia Friend-Harris is already seeing the impacts of the funding increase in Richmond Public Schools. This school year, she said her position will serve two school buildings instead of three. While she’ll still need to cover roughly seven hundred students, she said six newly hired staff members within their unit of psychologists will make a big difference, especially during the pandemic. 

“We had a number of students who reported increased rates of anxiety and depression.  Unfortunately we had students who expressed some suicidal ideation. Some were really struggling with isolation,” Friend-Harris said. 

“This frees me up to provide more services in the way of individual and group counseling and to consult with teachers as the state institutes a new mandate for social-emotional learning to be embedded throughout instruction,” she continued. 

Legislation requiring one full-time equivalent school counselor position for every 325 K-12 students is also taking effect in the 2021-2022 school year.  

Virginia School Counselors Association Government Relations and Advocacy Chair Brett Welch called it a step in the right direction after years of stagnation. 

“Ratios before the last session of the General Assembly had not been touched for school counselors in 30 years,” Welch said.

Welch said more needs to be done moving forward to reach American School Counselor Association recommendations. She said decreasing case loads further will allow counselors to build more meaningful relationships with students.

“I would love to see ratios reduced further down to 1 to 250 or even less, especially in high need schools,” Welch said. “What gives children access to learning is when they feel safe and taken care of. That’s the student counselors role.” 

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