New York City Public Schools Face A Shortage of Social Workers

There’s a shortage of social workers in New York City public schools.

A recent audit published in August by the state comptroller’s office uncovered the scope, showing that 80% of public schools within the Department of Education fell short of the recommended student to social worker ratio, with over 27% of schools failing to have a social worker altogether.

The need for social workers has grown as students grapple with the pandemic’s aftermath, but many schools remain unequipped to provide students with the support they require.

Bianca Signez is the only social worker at Susan B. Anthony Academy, a middle school in Queens with 950 students, and one of three schools flagged in the audit for its shortage of social workers. Signez was one of two social workers last year, but the other one was let go. This year, Signez is forced to prioritize students deemed to be most “at risk” based on parent and teacher referrals. These students come to her for help with issues like sexual assault, divorce, grief, trauma and poverty.

But this emphasis on “at risk” counseling by school social workers leaves the needs of other, “less at risk” students untended to.

“If there was a kid with social or emotional learning difficulties, they were lost within the cracks. There was nobody assigned to them,” said Elena, a social worker within the Department of Education, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her job.

Elena was hired in 2021 as part of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to hire 500 new social workers in schools across the city.

According to the Department, those workers were added through three-year contracts at the start of the 2021 school year to respond to the mental health needs of students through counseling and referrals to community-based mental health resources. For many social workers, the hiring spree in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic generated an inkling of hope that it would provide a solution to the long-standing issue that predates the pandemic.

The hiring surge stands apart from the DOE’s history of school budget cuts and hiring freezes for social workers. Janna Bruner, chief program officer of DOE-contracted non-profit Counseling in Schools, explains that mental health needs in general have historically been overlooked and mental health resources underfunded. But according to Bruner, the pandemic “shone a light on how critical social work needs are,” especially among students.

The 2021 hiring efforts bring temporary relief to the chronic understaffing of social workers in schools, but the August audit shows that a more permanent staffing solution is needed.

“All of these years, there was no one. How are these kids going to succeed? They come from abusive homes, they have no food, there’s drugs… and there was nobody that they could talk to,” said Elena.

Though the Department of Education hired these social workers to provide counseling, many found their responsibilities overstretched and their job descriptions muddled with confusion. Elena was tasked with arrivals and dismissals, lunch duty and processing doctor’s notes, all responsibilities outside of her job description and professional training.

Like many social workers in the city’s school system, Elena was required to cycle between two schools a week, spending three days at one school and two days at another.

“They still don’t have one social worker per school. They still divide social workers into two schools. So if you think about the caseload, you don’t have the caseload of one school, you have the caseload of two schools,” Elena said, pointing to the challenge that many social workers face of getting acquainted with the students, cultures and policies of two schools.

Prolonged understaffing and overburdening of social workers can quickly lead to burnout, exacerbating the shortage. Meanwhile, the need for care remains as acute as ever. “I cannot believe that all of these kids are going through all of this stuff and there is sometimes nobody that they can go to,” Elena said.

About the author(s)

Julie Goldenberg is a Canadian journalist and student at Columbia Journalism School.