November/December 2021 Issue
October 25, 2021

Union advocates for social-emotional supports for all students and educators

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: In testimony before the Senate Education Committee, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta calls for the state to fully fund the social-emotional support staff all schools need. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Wappingers school psychologist Beth Rizzi created online resources to reach students. In the North Country village of Malone, school psychologist Chris Van Houten is consulting more with teachers, making more classroom visits and making a point to meet with all students. In Scarsdale and suburban Gates-Chili, school psychologists have embraced telehealth practices to make sure students have access to services.

Across the state, NYSUT school psychologists, like their teaching counterparts, had to create new pathways to reach students when school buildings closed and are now gleaning ways to help students adjust to being back in school.

Many students have experienced the upheaval of a world where some parents lost jobs, family members died or are experiencing long-term illness from COVID-19, and social isolation became necessary to avoid exposure to the virus. More students now struggle with anxiety.

As part of NYSUT’s Future Forward initiative, the union says schools must prioritize, fund and staff school psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and school-related professionals so that social-emotional supports are available to all students.

NYSUT recommends three bills currently before the state Legislature to make this happen: One to require schools to employ at least one full-time social worker and a licensed school psychologist, another to require at least one counselor, and one to ensure all districts and BOCES employ at least one registered professional nurse in each school building.

This year’s hard-won increase in state Foundation Aid and federal American Recovery Plan funding presents an opportunity to accomplish these long-overdue goals, said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in recent testimony before the state Senate Education and Budget committees.

School psychologists agree.

When school buildings closed, Rizzi, a member of the Wappingers Congress of Teachers and president of the New York Association of School Psychologists, created a Bitmoji, or virtual, office stockpiled with links and resources on topics ranging from meditation to mindfulness to support students.

“We also created a check-in form that kids could access online. If they were experiencing a crisis and needed to be seen, they could complete the form and one of us would reach out,” she said. Panic attacks, family discord, fear about academics, family illness or suicidal ideation are just some of the crises presented.

In this year’s younger grades, where students had to begin their school careers online, “we’re definitely noticing the socialization piece. Students are having difficulty with peer interaction,” Malone’s Van Houten said. Many students are not used to the ideas of classroom experiential play or manipulative play.

“It’s been a roller coaster. It was very difficult to connect on screens,” he said. During the first four months of the pandemic last year, when schools were closed across the country, Malone school psychologists were among those making socially distanced home visits.

Several psychologists shared how one of the biggest concerns was finding ways to connect with students who dropped out of sight while school buildings were shut down.

Peter Faustino, Scarsdale TA, said prior to the pandemic he was hesitant to do any telehealth, “but because we were thrust into it, I found uses for it. Kids seem open to technology.”

Some kids felt safer being in their room when discussing tough topics, he noted. One student creatively used a different background on the screen for each telehealth meeting in order to reflect his mood.

“It was a signal to how the student was feeling, and it sparked discussion,” Faustino said.

On the flip side, Faustino said, one student did not like what he was saying and clicked off the computer, shutting him out.

Faustino also noted that while Scarsdale provided devices to every student, not every district could do that, and many students in the state still struggle with reliable access to the internet.

School psychologists have also helped teachers, who have been dealing with uprooted classrooms and mixed teaching methods.

In Scarsdale, Faustino said psychologists created a six-week professional development mindfulness and meditation course for teachers.

Speaking to best practice for students and educators, NYSUT called for an end to the practice of concurrent or simultaneous teaching. “We appreciate NYSUT being vocal about that,” Van Houten said. “It was so challenging.”

In suburban Gates- Chili, where more than 18 countries are represented in the student population, veteran school psychologist and TA member Stacy Killings said mental health needs “shot through the roof.” Students missed out on the daily interaction and some had pressing needs, including not being able to fill prescriptions due to their parents’ unemployment.

“For a lot of kids, school is a safe space,” she said.

Meeting with students online provided an opportunity to connect not just with the student, but with their families as well.

“I’m going into their home (virtually); they’re going into mine. I hear dogs, I see kids, we’re at the kitchen table,” she said. She used the phone when online access wasn’t available and promoted journaling for the students.

A new energy is now filling the schools, even with the still-necessary masking and distancing precautions.

And with legislative support to fund and implement proven practices, that growth will continue.

“There is an excitement in this building that feels amazing,” Killings said.

FUTURE FORWARD

As schools continue to work through pandemic uncertainty, now is the time to implement proven practices that establish strong foundations for growth in our schools.

Research backs up what educators know — we can lay the groundwork for our students that will enable them to thrive academically, socially and emotionally. It’s up to all of us to outline a path forward for our students; we must act on what we have learned from these crises.

Together we can outline a path forward that will lead New York’s schools to a chapter of profound progress. NYSUT’s Future Forward initiative calls for local districts and the state to: Support public schools as the center of our communities.

  • Support students’ social-emotional needs.
  • Fight for racial justice.
  • De-emphasize high-stakes testing.
  • Adopt best practices for instruction and technology.

Learn more about the statewide union initiative at nysut.org/futureforward.

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