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Buffalo Schools to receive $5 million in mental health support from state

Buffalo News - 2/1/2024

Feb. 1—The financial cliff approaching Buffalo Public Schools at the end of its federal Covid-19 relief funding in September may not be as precipitous as previously feared.

Gov. Kathy Hochul this week announced two new funding streams awarded to New York schools for the same major areas that pandemic funding targeted: pandemic learning loss and mental health concerns.

Buffalo Public Schools and Syracuse City Schools got the most funding statewide related to mental health, at $5 million each. Buffalo also received nearly $2.9 million in Pandemic Learning Loss RECOVS money, too.

The significance of the state grant to Buffalo is that the district can afford to bolster and sustain systems established to respond to disrupted learning and the social-emotional problems that stemmed from isolation during the pandemic.

Continued help will go toward "enhancing student access to mental health professionals and services in all 60 schools," District spokesperson Jeffrey Hammond said Thursday, including for further development of the district's multi-tiered system of supports, partnerships with community organizations such as Say Yes Buffalo, efforts toward mental health de-stigmatization and improving the district's ability to identify mental health concerns.

The intention of the state funding, Hammond said, "is to expand training for staff and supports for students."

Internal efforts continue to avoid laying off counselors, but the governor's financial award does not necessarily mean positions for psychologists and social workers originally hired using federal Covid-19 relief are any safer.

"No final decisions about staffing will be made until the state passes its budget," Hammond said.

Four counselors spoke up at the December School Board meeting to emphasize the immense social and emotional needs students still shared, after news broke that Covid-19-funded positions could be jeopardized when the district adjusted its budget to account for the end of the temporary funding.

It was clear that their focus was to maintain or expand the current level of full-time counselor positions, not aim for more professional development and complementary tools.

Rebecca Rogers, a counselor at Native American Magnet, spotlighted the wide-ranging responsibilities of her position.

"We help all students apply academic achievement strategies, manage emotions and apply interpersonal skills, and plan for postsecondary options," she told the board. She added that districtwide, counselors delivered 3,300 classroom presentations or lessons, and nearly 2,400 restorative conferences and circles in the past year.

"We are stretched and challenged by the high needs of students," Rogers said.

Other counselors stressed that social-emotional resources are inextricably connected to academic achievement.

E. Meg Williams, a counselor at Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, said she has been inspired by working with English Language Learners through the pandemic and during its aftermath.

"I can see how high they can soar with just a little help," she said.

Addressing students' mental health was one of the chief categories toward which school districts could dedicate their American Rescue Plan (ARP) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER). Buffalo, for instance, used a portion of its $290 million over three years to nearly double its student support staff. It hired aggressively to ensure each of the district's schools had a counselor, psychologist, social worker and attendance teacher.

Buffalo Schools has for two months sought ways to reduce its budget without sacrificing instruction. Early indications are that about $60 million of the $90 million the district needs to save were one-off expenses, not recurring. The remaining $30 million, about the cost of more than 300 full-time equivalent positions, presents a greater challenge. Discussions about how to protect those jobs without layoffs has led to potential solutions such as eliminating vacant positions, of which there are more than 250, or not hiring to replace retired teachers.

The RECOVS funding, earmarked to combat learning loss, will contribute toward existing endeavors to improve student academic performance, particularly in the core subjects of math and reading. Investments in literacy instruction that follows the science of reading, refining teachers' skills in math and supporting Extended Learning Time are anticipated.

Academic goals are especially in the spotlight. Superintendent Tonja M. Williams' end-of-the-year evaluation this year hinges on incremental improvements in math and reading scores for economically disadvantaged third-graders.

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