MINNEAPOLIS — Teachers in Minneapolis say they’ve noticed more children with anxiety and depression. A school counselor says she has seen more fights and drug use. Some children tell parents they are frustrated because learning stops when teachers have to deal with disruptive students in the classroom.
Increasing mental health services for students in Minneapolis, where the problems of the COVID-19 pandemic have been compounded by the trauma of the murder of George Floyd, is a key issue for the more than 4,500 educators and members of the support staff who were on strike for a second day on Wednesday.
“These kids have been through hell,” said Erika Brask, who has a daughter in the district. And teachers, she says: “What is expected of them is not tenable”.
“Because there’s not enough mental health support in schools, teachers have to deal with it, and it’s the kids who suffer,” she said.
The union is calling for reduced workloads for special education teachers, school psychologists, social workers and counsellors. It is also looking to increase the supply of special education aids and others to help teachers.
Ben Polk, a special education aide, said he faces a daily shortage of staff.
Polk said he was typically assigned to help two to three students in a class with “very high behavioral needs.” Because there aren’t enough helpers to help other students who need support, he often ends up helping six or seven in a class of 35.
“It’s not possible for one person to do it,” he said. “It’s crowded, everyone is hurting. … It’s too intense an environment for the teacher to really do their job and for the children to get the education they deserve.”
Superintendent Ed Graff agreed that children and teachers need more mental health support. The district said it was spending a portion of the nearly $90 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for mental health.
But Graff said the teachers’ demands — which also include higher salaries — would cost about $166 million a year beyond what’s currently budgeted. He said the district has a budget shortfall of $26 million for next year.
“We have all these priorities that we want to see happen. And we don’t have the resources. And somebody has to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it,'” Graff said.
At least 2,000 Minneapolis teachers, staff and supporters gathered for a rally outside the state Capitol on Wednesday. Speakers demanded that the state tap into its $9.25 billion surplus to increase funding for schools.
Kelsey Clark, a school counselor at South High School and a member of the bargaining team, said her school had five counselors, each with a caseload of around 300 to 350 students — a ratio she said was lower than most. She said having a mental health support team – including social workers and psychologists – is vital for all schools.
“In this year and the last few years there’s been so much going on in the world – the pandemic that’s still happening, we’re going to distance learning,” said Clark, whose school is near the site of Floyd’s murder. “There have been so many deaths from racial incidents, from COVID, that just had a traumatic impact on students.”
She said she has seen increased cases of anxiety and depression, more violence and more drug use. Two weeks ago she was the first adult called to help after a student passed out from drugs. Another student came to her desk and broke down, saying she couldn’t concentrate due to anxiety and stress.
“In the past, our mental health team would give presentations and have school-level town halls on different things, whether it was consent or offering resources,” she said. “We couldn’t do it that way. The last assembly we tried to have, a fight broke out.”
She said a lower counselor-to-student ratio would help staff avoid potential problems.
Brask said her elementary-aged daughter suffers from anxiety and sensory processing disorder that can make it hard for her to concentrate if it’s loud. Sometimes she fidgets, and sometimes she just gets overwhelmed and can shut down. Her daughter often needs extra support, she says.
She made a plan for her daughter to have time out to see the school social worker, but the meeting sometimes doesn’t happen if the social worker is facing a crisis, Brask said. .
And when students are disruptive in class, it can affect her daughter – but teachers bear the brunt of it, she said.
“Unless they have kids in the district and know what’s going on, people have no idea how hard these teachers work to make up for the lack of support they get from the district” , she said.
Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski and Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.