Locust Valley Superintendent Kenneth Graham with Michelle Villa, the district's...

Locust Valley Superintendent Kenneth Graham with Michelle Villa, the district's newly hired director of guidance and school counseling. The district has filled four new mental health positions over the past year. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Island schools are hiring psychologists, social workers and counselors in response to increased student stress from the COVID-19 pandemic as they brace for a wave of emotional health needs when students return to school.

The hiring reflects an increase in anxiety, depression and isolation as students deal with pandemic-related pressures such as the loss of a loved one, economic hardships in their household, struggles with distance learning and the frustration of not being able to see friends, educators said.

What to know

Long Island schools are hiring more psychologists, social workers and counselors in response to increased student stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hiring reflects an increase in anxiety, depression and isolation as students deal with pandemic-related pressures such as the loss of a loved one, economic hardships in their household, and the frustration of not being able to see friends.

Educators say they are bracing for a wave of emotional health needs when students return to school in the fall.

With the start of school about a month away, Riverhead, for example, is adding seven more psychologists, three social workers and three guidance counselors, Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said.

"We understand the tremendous struggle our families are going through, and we are providing additional support at all grade levels," Tornatore said.

Before, the district had seven psychologists, 12 social workers (one part time) and 10 counselors, officials said.

Some districts are taking advantage of $1 billion in federal stimulus money granted to Long Island schools during the health crisis. Riverhead expects the lion's share of its $1 million investment in these professionals to come from federal aid, Tornatore said.

But other districts, such as Locust Valley, which has spent $400,000 filling four new mental health positions since the pandemic, are using their own budget funds. The federal money will only be provided for three years, and Locust Valley school officials said they want to ensure the positions are permanent.

"I think we've seen an increase in need before the pandemic," Superintendent Kenneth Graham said. He noted the district had 13 mental health staff members before the pandemic.

Long Island has 124 public school districts, and while the total hiring of mental health professionals is unknown, surveys by the Long Island Education Coalition show a robust increase in hiring. A coalition survey looking at the 2020-21 school term found that, of the 73 districts that responded, 66 indicated they planned to add 36 total mental health positions. A survey looking at 2021-22 had 60 districts saying they anticipated adding 73 positions.

"Superintendents are apparently recognizing that students are facing stressors we haven't seen before," said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES and a coalition member.

A 'mental health moment'

Educators said they see a "mental health moment" occurring in the country, in which the pandemic is heightening awareness, especially among children.

School officials realize that for students to do well academically, they need to be right emotionally, said Julie Beatrice, the Long Island representative on the New York State School Social Workers' Association.

More than 80% of students with emotional and behavioral disorders scored below the average student in reading, writing and math compared to the general population, according to a study in Sage Journals.

A decade ago, many school social workers found their jobs being squeezed out by tightening budgets and the shifting of their duties to outside firms, Beatrice said. In 2018, a New York State law mandated schools to offer mental health instruction in schools.

Then came the pandemic. Many students were left alone to work from home, and some had to work while watching siblings. Kids weren't able to socialize with friends. Some didn't have a computer to do the work. When schools partially reopened in September, students had to wear masks and stay distant from one another, and many sports and other programs were canceled.

"We're going to have to do a lot of damage control to get to a normal school experience for students," Beatrice said.

'Can you help my child out?'

Brentwood, the Island's largest district with about 19,000 students in 17 schools, has added five psychologists and six social workers since the pandemic, Superintendent Richard Loeschner said.

"We are seeing an uptick in depression and suicidal ideation," meaning an increase in suicidal thoughts, Loeschner said. "We get a lot of calls from parents asking, 'Can you help my child out? They're having tremendous difficulty adjusting to the [distant] learning style.' "

West Babylon is in the process of hiring two additional social workers on top of the current four social workers, Superintendent Yiendhy Farrelly said.

Farrelly said even young children need these services. West Babylon is also hiring a guidance counselor just for sixth-graders, to help them with the transition from elementary to junior high, Farrelly said.

Students reaching out for help didn't always receive it.

Twyla Joseph, of Central Islip, said she was struggling in September with decisions about her school schedule and choice of college. As she was starting her senior year at Central Islip High School, Joseph, who was doing distance learning, said she could only reach her guidance counselor by email or phone and the counselor always seemed busy.

"Always overwhelmed, with so many different students with so many things," she said of her counselor.

Joseph, 18, eventually got through to the counselor, but the trouble communicating back and forth was frustrating and stressful, she said. She eventually worked through her college application process herself.

"It's hard if you can't speak to someone in person," said Joseph, who is now studying psychology at The City College of New York.

Urgency every day

Marilyn Solano is a social worker at the Brentwood Freshman Center, the district's school for ninth-graders. The pandemic, she said, at times overwhelmed her with "more mental health services, trauma, isolation, loss — a lot of crises."

At her school, a guidance counselor focuses largely on when students need academic intervention. The psychologist performs mental health services and evaluations, and the social worker works with special-needs students and helps with counseling others, especially when it's appropriate to talk with the family or refer students to an outside mental health professional.

Solano recalled working with an honor student experiencing anxiety because her schoolwork was suffering. The student also had a parent who was sick at home, Solano said.

"She was a little shy, a little guarded," Solano said. "She needed support. She was in crisis. The great thing is she was open."

Working with the school psychologist — they often operate as a team — Solano taught the student coping strategies such as mindfulness and emotional regulation, a process of using breathing exercises, journaling and other skills to reduce the intensity of emotions.

"She did well. She was still anxious till the end of the school year, but she finished strong," Solano said.

School counselor Lysa Mullady, of Smithtown, said she felt a sense of urgency daily at her school in Suffolk. She dealt with many parents worried about their child's performance.

"I had to teach parents not to do the work for their kids," Mullady said.

The biggest problems, she said, were a lack of engagement in the work and chronic absenteeism, especially among students learning from home.

One student, she said, just stopped doing schoolwork. "Not motivated, not paying attention, not handing in assignments," she said.

Mullady started seeing the student twice a week, on those hybrid days when the student was in the building. The counselor made sure not to pressure her, she said.

"We found that crafting lowered her anxiety, so we made and painted a papier-mâché unicorn," Mullady said.

"The magic was in the connection with a counselor," she added. "It was all about creating a relationship, creating a safe place and kindling a desire to learn."

When school starts

What schooling will look like in the fall remains unclear. Many school leaders said they hope students will come back to the brick-and-mortar buildings full time.

Neither the governor's office nor the state Department of Health will issue guidance to govern the reopening of schools. So, local school districts will be making their own decisions on masking, physical distancing, testing, vaccination requirements and other issues related to COVID-19.

Officials will be making these decisions amid an overall spike in cases and hospitalizations due to the delta variant.

More than just providing services to individual students, West Babylon will be sending mental health professionals into classes at all grade levels to talk to students about resiliency, relationship building and handling stress, officials said.

Some districts sent surveys to parents over the summer asking about their children's well-being.

Loeschner, the Brentwood superintendent, said he expects a "honeymoon period" for the first month or so of school, as students and teachers happily get to know one another again.

He's asked his staff to keep an eye out for students in emotional distress, which doesn't always show itself in clear ways.

"If a normally gregarious and outgoing student is now a little quiet and sullen, that raises an antenna," Loeschner said.

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