School counselors traditionally have filled an academic support role: writing letters of recommendations and helping undecided students pick classes. While they still perform such functions, the role of the school counselor has greatly expanded in the years leading up to and since the pandemic.
Now, counselors provide emotional and mental health support as students reel from the effects of the pandemic. And advocates say there are far too few of them to meet the growing need among students in Massachusetts.
That was one takeaway from an online panel Thursday of school leaders, counselors and a student hosted by the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, which is calling for more state and federal support to hire more counseling staff.
"There has been a noticeable increase in students struggling with anxiety, depression and deficits in self-regulation skills," said Tama Lang, a school counselor in Chicopee and panelist. "Increased funding and hiring more counselors statewide may be one of the first steps in addressing the social, emotional needs of our students."
While better than the national ratio, Massachusetts has a counselor-to-student ratio of one to 364. The state has approximately 2,470 counselors for 911,000 students. To meet the recommended ratio of one counselor to every 250 students, the commonwealth would need a thousand more school counselors.
Nationally, 70% of public schools saw an increase of students seeking mental health services since the start of the pandemic, according to the group.
Bob Bardwell, the association's executive director, said students, especially students of color, continue to live with the effects of the pandemic, whether that's the death of a family member or housing instability. And that's created heavier case loads for counselors.
"Most counselors leave at the end of the school day saying, 'I just didn’t get through everything I needed to get through.' And that can be pretty frustrating to know your job is never over," said Bardwell.
Even before the pandemic, the scope of the school counselor's job had expanded to cover everything from financial aid to suicide prevention to relationship building, said panelist Chris Jones, principal of Whitman-Hanson Regional High School in Hanson, Mass.
"The counselors today are not the same as a decade ago," Jones said. "The newer role of school counselors is one in which they navigate an often complicated relationship with budget cuts, parents, community members, standardized testing, at-risk students and more on top of what they used to do."
But advocates see an opportunity to meet students' growing need for mental health support. They want school district leaders to allocate some money from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and the state's Student Opportunity Act toward hiring school counselors.
Bardwell acknowledged the "danger" of adding staff positions that could be cut when funding runs out, but he underscored the urgency of the need.
"I don't think you'd talk to any superintendent or school principal that wouldn't identify mental health as a priority," he said.
Jones said school budgets will always be constrained, but it comes down to priorities.
"If you look at the budget sheet for a school or for a district, you know what that district's priorities are. And what we need to do is just shift the thinking to make counselors enough of a priority that that's where that money goes," he said.