With full-time in-person learning back and the coronavirus seemingly on the wane, 2021-2022 was supposed to be a return to normal at public schools. But if anything, this school year has been even harder than the previous, as teachers and counselors say a cascade of problems and issues are testing the limits of their endurance and resolve.
Already conditioned to multitasking, teachers say the issues they are juggling have multiplied in number and, as important, in severity. More students are struggling academically and emotionally. Schools are dealing with abnormal amounts of disruptive behavior and widespread lack of motivation, while staff are spending time teaching social-emotional skills students should have learned earlier.
“Everything I’ve trained for, everything that’s worked in the past, none of it’s working,” said Laura Messner, a middle school English language arts literacy specialist in Scituate. “I’m very worried about what’s coming down the pike if we don’t think about how we’re going to address these challenges that are not temporary challenges.”
While some districts such as Boston have added mental health services for students, teachers say it is not enough to ease the pressure on them, especially since many are grappling with their own pandemic-related mental health issues.
The strain is showing in the teaching ranks. Boston Public Schools, for example, has more than 800 vacancies for teachers and substitutes — more than 18 percent of its current teacher workforce, according to job postings on its website. The district also said it has 73 openings for long-term substitutes, compared to 37 last April, the most in five years.
“The pandemic has been extraordinarily hard on teachers,” Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said. “I do worry about teacher health and wellness and their social-emotional ability to persist through.”
Many issues, it seems, can be traced back to students’ well-being — or lack thereof. While rates of depression and anxiety among youth were rising before the pandemic, emergency room visits for mental health concerns have increased since the onset of the coronavirus, experts say. Boston Public Schools is on pace to conduct more psychological and threat assessments and respond to more school-based crises than in the first two years of the pandemic, according to data through March from the Behavioral Health Department.
Robert Bardwell, head of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, said the disruptions and losses caused by the pandemic have been “traumatic” for students.
“Regardless of where you are on the scale — you could be a student who never got sick and no one you know got sick — you still went through a traumatic experience. Routine and stability are really important. You couldn’t go to school.”
For teachers and school counseling staff, the burden of responding to those struggles is high. While some districts have increased the number of campus-based licensed medical professionals, experts said there remains an even greater need.
One district that does have a particularly strong complement of counselors is Scituate, with roughly 200 students per counselor — well below the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250 students to 1 or the Massachusetts average last year of 364 to 1.
Yet even with those resources, Scituate students are “all clawing to stay above water,” said Messner, who works at the Gates Middle School.
Students in her district are reporting feelings of depression at three times normal levels, she said, and high numbers of kids are not doing their work; some sixth- and seven-graders have even asked her why they need to go to school, or why they can’t just drop out.
That matches what Lucinda Mills, a social worker for the Boston Public Schools, has experienced. Teachers and staff are seeing more disruptive behavior than ever before, more students with anxiety and depression, and more seeking referrals to outside therapists. This, as students are relearning the routines and procedures of being in school.
“The burnout is across the board, not just for teachers,” Mills said. “Whether you’re new or experienced, a lot of people who are school-based, dealing with the day-to-day interactions of what happens in a school, it’s hard.”
Teachers also are having to respond to more behavioral problems from students, like fighting and breaking things, said Ulana Ainsworth, who teachers kindergarten at the Roger Clap Elementary School in Boston.
“This year I have seen more extreme behaviors than I have seen at a typical school year. It’s not just the school I’m at. It’s every school,” she said. “People are stretched thin, especially dealing with [those] behaviors, because they haven’t had the experience and the training to deal with them.”
Boston Public Schools made a significant investment in social workers this year, putting at least one in every school for the first time, Mills noted.
“But we still have more need for more mental health professionals in the schools,” she said. “Even in schools where there are two or three, people are saying how busy they are.”
Boston is planning to expand mental health services further in the latest budget, Cassellius said, with a goal of reaching the nationally recommended level of one counselor for every 250 students.
Experts also pointed to a shortage of pediatric mental health providers, leaving schools to try to support students who would otherwise be referred to a professional.
The challenge of supporting struggling students is compounded by staff members’ own pandemic-related stress, said Mills.
“A huge piece we’ve seen is mental health needs not just for students but for adults working in schools, too,” Mills said. “They also need a lot more support, because they’re burned out, too.”
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said teachers and students are caught in “a vicious cycle,” with the stress ratcheting ever up, and inevitably, rebounding back onto the kids.
“On an airplane, adults are always told, you need to put your mask on first before you help your children,” said Tang. “The same concept applies to schools. If adults are not well-regulated, well-supported, and are feeling lots of stress and pressures, that’s going to have a lot of impact on students.”
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.