American Rescue Plan funds will provide a boost to the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s long-delayed plan to hire 1,000 school counselors.
OSDE will use $35 million in federal virus relief money to give districts 50% salary and benefits matches for hiring licensed counselors, psychologists and other professionals. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the funding should cover 300 counselors for three years as part of the Oklahoma School Counselor Corps initiative.
"We know our kids have suffered a lot of trauma and the pandemic has made for various disruptions to that kind of social-emotional connection, and this is really going to be needed in order to first have that foundation laid so that academic progress can continue," Hofmeister said.
State Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Carrie Slatton-Hodges agreed the need for mental health professionals in school settings is great. Oklahoma kids suffered the nation’s highest rates of trauma before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Far too many of Oklahoma’s children are living childhoods that expose them to traumatic experiences. This fact, coupled with the trauma we all experienced due to last year’s disruptions, underscores how critical it is to better integrate our systems so that fewer children develop mental health problems," Slatton-Hodges said in a statement.
OSDE has requested state funding for the counselor corps initiative for three years without success. While the recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250-to-1, Oklahoma’s is more than 400-to-1.
Hofmeister said the problem is not that those professionals don't exist.
"There’s actually about 700 to 800 licensed counselors that are within the teaching ranks currently. They are not in the position of counselor because of the teacher shortage," Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister said she would also welcome back recently retired licensed counselors.