PHOENIX - Federal coronavirus relief funding will help schools hire 140 counselors and social workers as children return to classrooms with pandemic-induced stresses and isolation, Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman said Monday.
Hoffman said the $21 million plan will provide two years of funding to eliminate a waitlist for mental health professionals requested by schools in 2019. State lawmakers that year expanded a school safety grant program that had long funded police officers to also cover counselors, but demand outstripped the available funding.
The $21 million in federal coronavirus relief funding will run out after two years. Hoffman called on the Republican-controlled Legislature to permanently fund the new hires, saying her agency is "stepping in where the Legislature has failed to act."
"A state that was truly committed to supporting the mental health of students wouldn’t find these positions through a competitive grant process with a waitlist," Hoffman, a Democrat, said during a news conference at the state Capitol. "It would provide ongoing access to mental health support for all students."
Even with the additional positions, Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio will still be too high, she said.
Hoffman said she’s taking steps to boost the social and emotional wellbeing of students, including those struggling after the pandemic upended schooling and everyday life in what she called a "genuinely traumatic year for many of our young learners."
"Our students are facing weighty, weighty issues as we return to in-person learning," said Sarah Skemp, a counselor at Lake Havasu High School and board chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association. "School counselors are equipped to address fears and trauma related to the COVID-19 pandemic, equity and mental wellness."
The money will go to schools in 10 counties that lost out on grants for social workers and counselors from the 2019 round of funding from the School Safety Grant Program. It will not cover additional police officers. Hoffman said she wanted to use the emergency COVID-19 funding to focus on the most urgent needs, which she said includes mental health.
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