Bill calls for mental health workers in elementary schools

Newark Post | by Staff and wire reports

A bill mandating that elementary schools in Delaware be staffed with counselors, social workers and psychologists is headed to the House floor for a vote.

The House Education Committee voted overwhelmingly last week to release the bill for consideration by the full House.

Supporters of the bill say mental health disorders are the most common health problem for school-aged children, and that half of lifetime mental health illnesses begin by age 14.

Supporters also say the coronavirus epidemic has exacerbated mental health issues among young students.

The bill in sponsored by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Democrat from Bear. Among its co-sponsors are a number of legislators from the Newark area, including state senators Stephanie Hansen, Jack Walsh, David Sokola and Bryan Townsend; and state representatives Paul Baumbach, David Bentz, John Kowalko, Eric Morrison, Ed Osienski, Michael Ramone, Michael Smith and Madinah Wilson-Anton.

Smith made the bill one of his campaign priorities when seeking re-election last fall.

“One thing that made me passionate about it was just some of the trauma that I went through as a kid and the need to try to tackle that,” he said at the time. “It would be much different than your traditional school counselor. You’d still have your school counselors; this would actually be a whole new unit count to deal with mental health or social work.”

According to lawmakers, almost 90 percent of elementary schools in Delaware do not employ a social worker, and the ratios of students to school counselors and school psychologists far exceed best practices.

The bill calls for one full-time counselor or social worker for every 250 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and one full-time psychologist or licensed mental health therapist for every 700 students.

Based on the November 2020 enrollment numbers, the bill authorizes 241 counselors or social workers and 86 psychologists. The estimated cost for the first year is about $23.9 million in state funds and $8.9 million local funds in fiscal 2022.

The bill echoes a similar measure that cleared the education committee in 2019 but stalled in the appropriations committee.

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