It’s not just 2020

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Photo illustration by Brinda Ambal

It is time we reexamine where the responsibilities of social services are placed.

We spent this year blaming 2020 for everything. We blamed it and online school as counselors struggled to solve unprecedented scheduling problems and care for students’ mental health simultaneously. We blamed it for the lack of connection as teachers could no longer check in on their students and their well-being. We blamed it when those who relied on Parkway to provide meals were initially left to hang. 

We took to blaming incomprehensive social services on 2020, a year we’ve collectively deemed a disaster. The unfortunate events of this past year, however, were simply the catalyst these issues needed to rear their ugly heads. A vicious cycle of overburdening education providers, present throughout history, has become more apparent as our educational system faced trial after trial this past year. 

This cycle appears throughout history. The evolution of the role of school counselors is a prime example of it. Counselors originally were teachers asked to take on the additional responsibility of guiding students through and toward their academic and career goals. Around the 1920s and 1930s, schools began hiring counselors specifically to take on these tasks. As they did, however, the role of counselors grew to once again having to take on more than their fair share; they were expected to cover the above tasks, while also solving scheduling problems and providing behavioral guidance and mindset education. 

In recent years, we’ve added college counselors and social workers, but we also continued to add responsibilities like providing social and emotional health services. Counselors and teachers were asked to do more with less people. This is the exact cycle of overburdening that continues today, 100 years later, with respect to the education system and social services. School systems take on more responsibilities, ask existing staff and the community to expand their roles to carry out these responsibilities, and then add more resources to take on the job just as they take on more responsibilities.

Schools and the education system inherently embody a mindset of “what more can we do?” This can be positive, encouraging constant growth, but it needs the action to back it up. If the education system wants to take on responsibility for providing social services, it should employ enough people and secure enough resources to provide them, so they don’t continue adding straws of hay onto the backs of their current staff. 

Online schooling, a huge part of 2020, has exposed just how many of these additional responsibilities are placed on our teachers in addition to their primary job: education. One example is teachers no longer being able to simply make sure we’re OK.

“I feel like my role has already been shifting towards this over the past several years. When I first started teaching I was [focused on] lesson plans, tests, essays and feedback. And yes, I obviously have to do those things, but it has slowly become a much more primary concern to check on the emotional well-being of the kids that I’m with,” English teacher Cara Borgsmiller said.

One of the key things teachers do besides actually teaching is have daily conversations that monitor how students are feeling. Prior to COVID-19, we would always hear “How did your recital go?” or “Did you get to binge the new season of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’?” or even just “How are you doing today?” Teachers take the time to feel out our mood, which has become crucial in preserving our everyday mental stability and health, especially if we don’t have anyone else in our lives asking those questions. They use this time to read nonverbal cues like seeing if a student has bags under their eyes. However, with COVID-19, these daily check-ins that are crucial to detecting someone’s mental stability are virtually impossible. 

“I literally cannot know [how my students are doing] because the vast majority of [students] will have their screens off. It makes those kinds of check-ins impossible,” Borgsmiller said. “I think a lot of these kids don’t even know they need a daily check-in. Sometimes it takes somebody to point out to them that they are not OK and then do something about it.”

Students are struggling to form the connections with teachers that they previously relied on, struggling with mental health, showing us just how important it has become for teachers to center attention on the mental wellbeing of their students.

Schools are not properly equipped to handle larger mental health issues either. Mental health services that need the full attention of those who can help are instead placed on the backs of counselors handling other tasks as well. As mentioned earlier, counselors are now responsible for academic planning, behavioral situations, scheduling, letters of recommendation, transcript management and countless other tasks. Something as paramount as mental health services cannot be second tier, another job added on.

Mental healthcare isn’t the only additional service our educational systems have taken on. Schools are used as an avenue to fight food insecurity, a task necessary for the health of students. A prime example is the Parkway Pantry, which combats food insecurity, a prevalent issue that already affects more than 172,000 children in the St. Louis area. While the Pantry is staffed by Parkway employees, they also rely greatly on core volunteers and community donations. It is so beneficial to many that the Parkway Pantry acts as a safety net to ensure that families in our area are fed after school hours. As school moved virtual, the Pantry had to quickly evolve to be able to continue to fill this role, reiterating just how essential their social service is. On the Parkway Pantry’s webpage, they explain that there are at least 150 students currently on a waiting list to receive consistent help from the food pantry. One hundred and fifty students are food insecure and do not know where their next meal will come from. This hinders a student’s ability to learn, is socially stigmatizing and leads to developmental issues. This program is vital to the health of our community, so how long will it be before this necessary service receives necessary support? 

We know that the service the food pantry provides, along with the extra responsibilities taken on by teachers and counselors, reflect the eagerness of the Parkway staff and community to make this world a better place for us. We are beyond grateful. We know you love what you do and you do it for us, and we will always be thankful. The issues uncovered by 2020 are not your fault; we need to break this cycle that perpetuates incomprehensive social services.

We hope that in the future, we can find balance. In some cases, it might be beneficial to use the established power and organization of the education system, such as having a constant source of income for the food boxes the Pantry sends home. In other cases, though, students might receive more thorough, more holistic care in the hands of state-funded psychologists whose primary purpose is to provide mental healthcare instead of placing that responsibility on counselors who have to juggle various other tasks as well.

Overburdening teachers and our school systems is not a stable way to solve the myriad of issues currently plaguing youth and schools. While we are extremely fortunate to have staff in Parkway who take on more than their job description with a smile on their face, this isn’t fair to them. This is not an issue that will go away by simply asking them to do more. These trends are nothing new; they’ve merely been exposed and brought to mainstream attention because of  COVID-19.

We don’t know exactly what a solution looks like yet. It might take restructuring the way funds are allocated to address these issues; it might take a more universal understanding of the expectations placed on schools and staff. It will take having honest discussions about education, culture and healthcare in America that recognize the flaws in our education system and mistakes of the past. None of these issues are new or symptoms of the past 365 days. The issue is bigger than the past year, as we’ve been approaching a breaking point ever since the fusion of education and social services began. It’s crucial to understand this, to understand that we’ve been hurtling towards disaster, to understand that an overburdened and underfunded system has to do more with less, to understand that this system doesn’t work. It’s time we break the cycle.