The COVID-19 virus has spread through hundreds of thousands of bodies in New York City, but it has also seeped into our psyches.
As a nation, we now have suffered more deaths in the first few months of 2020 than the U.S. Armed Forces suffered in all the wars since the Korean War in 1952, 70 years ago.
Daily servings of death, fear, panic and social distancing — in real life or via news media — have already begun to yield a crisis in mental health. The suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER physician at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital is a tragic example.
The physical health effects will be with us for many months to come, even if they dip with warmer weather. The economic effects will last far longer. But the psychological effects will last longer still — perhaps even a lifetime — and are all the more pernicious for being invisible. And those psychological effects will impact children the most.
Therapists will tell you that children who experience traumas often have difficulty identifying, expressing and managing emotions; they will internalize or externalize stress reactions, resulting in depression, anxiety or anger. At a minimum, many will just not have the words to describe what they’re feeling. Social workers are mental health professionals who can address those issues — and help relieve the pressures on already overworked educators and staff.
During the COVID crisis, one social worker was able to help a student who was faltering academically by helping that student self-advocate by video chat with all her teachers and make arrangements that enabled her to finish her work and pass her classes.
I’ve spent years urging the DOE to hire at least one social worker per public school. With 78% of the city's schoolchildren economically disadvantaged, and 10% living in shelters or other temporary housing, we had a real need for social workers before the pandemic hit.
Last year, working with Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the Council’s Education Committee, we succeeded in obtaining funding to hire 200 new social workers and continued baseline funding for 85 workers hired the previous year. But the need is far greater. The Independent Budget Office estimated last year that it would require $94 million to fund a worker in every school that did not currently have one — a total of 716 workers system wide.
But that was a quarter-loaf — not even a half. And one social worker per school only barely starts to meet the need; the National Association of Social Workers recommends one per 250 students (which would translate to 4,500 social workers serving the city’s student population of over 1.1 million). Now, as the aftermath of this pandemic unfolds and the economic aftershocks reverberate, one per school is a necessity.
The signal accomplishment of Mayor de Blasio has been getting universal Pre-K for New York City students up and running in his first year. Study after study has shown that the benefits of Pre-K are not just academic, and last well into adulthood. Pre-K students got better grades, sure, but also got sick less often, were unemployed less often, and less likely to be arrested. But the COVID crisis puts all these generational benefits at risk, just five years after Pre-K began.
This year, despite the massive budget pressures, we must add social workers to the educational mix — whether it comes from the well-intentioned Thrive program or elsewhere, and whether schools meet face to face in September or not.
The magnitude of the crisis we are facing — and the resources needed to manage its aftermath — requires us to do more than simply restore what existed before. Government must anticipate future needs and plan to meet them; that’s why the next city budget must include funding for one social worker per school. The care we provide city students now will be repaid for years to come.
Gale A. Brewer is Manhattan Borough President.