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Councilors probe funding for nurses, counselors

Trea Lavery
Councilors probe funding for nurses, counselors
Education Committee Chairwoman Annissa Essaibi-George questions BPS officials while councilors Kim Janey and Edward Flynn look on. PHOTO: TREA LAVERY

City councilors in Boston are working to put a full-time nurse and full-time social and emotional support professional in every public school in the city.

At a hearing Monday evening, councilors heard testimony from members of the Boston Public Schools administration and the public in support of their effort.

“During the last budget cycle, Boston Public Schools with Mayor [Martin] Walsh have invested $2.3 million in additional spending for nurses, psychologists and social workers, but there is still an inadequate number of social-emotional support specialists,” said Education Committee Chairwoman Annissa Essaibi-George, who sponsored the hearing. “They need to be in every school, every hour to support all of our students.”

State guidelines recommend one nurse per 750 students; while BPS currently has one nurse for every 450 students, administrators say that this isn’t enough for students in high-risk areas. In addition, 44 of the 126 schools in the district have part-time, not full-time, school nurses.

Margaret VanCleve-Rocchio, senior director of health services at BPS, told the committee that a large number of students in the district have chronic health conditions which require a school nurse for assistance during the day.

“This school year, as of a few days ago, we’ve had over 190,000 visits to the health office,” ValCleve-Rocchio said. “They’re busy offices that we have here. We’ve given out almost 160,000 medications from the beginning of the school year to the end of March, and there’s been 259 calls for emergency services from our health offices. So just looking at those numbers, just considering we have 125 nurses in the schools, we’re busy.”

BPS Director of Behavioral Health Andria Amador had similar concerns about mental health support for students. She said that 12.5 percent of students in the city have experienced two or more adverse childhood conditions, or negative experiences that can affect their future learning. As with school nurses, not all schools in the district have a full-time social-emotional support professional, which can include psychologists and social workers. According to Amador’s presentation at the hearing, BPS currently employs 75.4 full-time school psychologists and 59.3 social workers, among other social-emotional support staff such as guidance development counselors, for a total of 239.2 total full-time social-emotional support employees.

Councilor Kim Janey, who represents District 7, including Roxbury, was especially concerned about the effects of neighborhood violence in schools, and worried that because of their low numbers, support professionals such as school counselors are not doing enough to help students exposed to violence in their neighborhoods.

“Something like this unfortunately happens, that child who may be directly connected, because maybe it was a relative that was involved, perhaps that child is receiving the supports they need,” she said. “But all the other children that live on that same street or within that block or within earshot of what has transpired are showing up at God knows how many different schools, and are showing up not ready to learn, and unfortunately to our school communities who may not be prepared or may not even be aware that something has happened on this child’s street.”

Also of concern for the committee was the lack of language proficiency among school nurses and social-emotional support staff. District 2 Councilor Ed Flynn asked BPS to prioritize hiring nurses and mental health professionals who also speak the languages that students do, including Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin.

“We want to make sure that when a student does go to a nurse or mental health professional that that nurse or mental health professional speaks that language as well,” Flynn said.

Lauren O’Malley-Singh, a BPS school nurse who works in two different locations during the day, testified that her role in the schools where she works goes beyond that of a nurse. She said that on many occasions, she helps students from low-income families navigate tasks like getting health insurance, and is often the only access to healthcare those students have.

However, she worries every day that a student at one school she works at will need her while she is working at another location.

“It’s unclear to me why the city has not responded appropriately to this high need,” O’Malley-Singh said. “It’s also unclear to our students, as I am asked the following question at least three times a week: What will happen if I get hurt or I get sick, and you’re not here?”

Essaibi-George calculated that to hire a full-time nurse for every school would cost the district an additional $2.2 million per year. However, she stressed that this was a necessary expense to ensure the safety and well-being of Boston students, as school nurses can save lives.

“[Emergency Medical Services] is always a few minutes away, but a nurse is always on staff, in the building and fully trained,” Essaibi-George said. “Nothing can replace the authority, the ability and the capability of a nurse in any one of our school buildings.”

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