Kristen DeVoy's five-year-old daughter Leia recently finished her first year of school in Boston. And what a year it was.
The little girl who wears tutus and plays with dolls became anxious and irritable when she had to go to "Zoom school" for hours every day. Even after she returned to school and reconnected with her playmates at Tynan Elementary School in South Boston this spring, the personal effects of the pandemic on her lingered.
“She's been saying to me recently, ‘Mommy, I was in school today, and I miss you and my tummy felt funny,’” DeVoy said. “That's how she describes her anxiety physically —as her tummy feeling funny.”
When DeVoy tried to arrange for her daughter to see a social worker, she was surprised to learn the school didn't have one.
The pandemic caused mental health problems for students of all ages, but when parents ask schools what services they offer, the responses vary widely from district to district, even school to school. In the fall, for example, Boston Public Schools will for the first time in years deploy more social workers than school police. Two years ago, there were eight social workers, in a district with more than 50,000 students.
“I’d like to think we’re at a watershed moment,” said Rebekah Gerwitz, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
But Gerwitz says better-resourced and wealthier districts in Massachusetts have been able to meet the recommended ratio of one social worker or adjustment counselor for every 250 students before the pandemic. The statewide average remains double that.
“That should be universal, that should be a right, that kids have access to someone who can help them, who can listen to them, who can talk to them, who can help guide them when they need it,” Gerwitz said.
That's pretty much the case in suburban Lexington, which comes close to meeting the recommended ratio, according to state data. But not Lowell and Worcester, where the ratio is one social worker for every 373 students and 349 students, respectively.
Boston's new school budget, yet to be approved by the City Council, would dramatically increase the number of social workers in the district.
But even with the addition of about 50 social workers, the city fell short of the ratio this pandemic year. Next year the district plans to add 95 social workers, closing the gap significantly.
Anne Hernandez, a veteran Boston school social worker, said the planned expansion is a welcome change. Affluent suburbs have made changes in recent years as the student depression and suicide rose.
“We just need to add more [mental health services] because kids are hurting, Black, white, of every color,” she said. “They have some real, real, real struggles.”
In her work at Irving Middle School in Roslindale, she’s currently helping a transfer student who attended school off and on, but now mostly off. Another seventh grader has a medical condition and refuses to take classes online, but Hernandez can't figure out why.
That student is "another one who's who's pretty much missed an entire year of instruction," Hernandez said. "Both of them are very smart, very artistic, but a bit of introverts with high anxiety levels.”
For some students remote learning has been a success, particuarly among students who have been bullied or have struggled in a traditional academic environment. Hernandez said she's currently working with many more students and sometimes their parents because of the pandemic, referring her most severe cases to hospital emergency rooms. Earlier this year, doctors testified before the state board of education that emergency rooms across Massachusetts were flooded with youth in need.
There has also been mounting concern districts have hired school resource officers — police — in greater numbers than social workers and mental health counselors, tilting toward criminalizing students of color instead of helping them. It's unclear how many police are employed in the state's public schools. The Massachusetts Juvenile Police Officers Association did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley recently cosponsored a bill to prohibit federal funding to increase school police ranks, noting that more than 46,000 officers currently work in schools across the country.
“At the same time 90% of our students go to a school where the number of counselors, social workers, psychologists and school nurses do not meet meet recommended ratio standards,” she said.
All this at a time researchers have linked youth isolation and loneliness with an increased risk of anxiety and depression later in life.
Kristen DeVoy, the mother of five-year-old Leia in South Boston, says the pandemic showed her how thin her school's mental health resources are. The principal arranged for her daughter to meet with a roving school psychologist and promised more services would be available in September.
But DeVoy's not waiting. She said she enrolled Leia in a Catholic school this fall.