School counselors in Georgia say they are overworked, understaffed, and facing an increase in mental health issues among students requiring outside intervention.
“There comes a point where we’ve got to refer out” to community partners and mental health agencies, said Kevin Young, a member of the Georgia School Counselor Association leadership team and a school counselor in Northwest Georgia.
He said such referrals have been standard practice for years, but are becoming more common.
“The pandemic pulled the rug out from many students,” Young said.
Experts say the lack of counselors is impacting students now and could have implications for a proposal to raise the age when students must attend school from 16 to 17 that is under consideration by the Georgia Senate Study Committee on the Age of Mandatory Education.
The study committee, which expires Dec. 1, has not yet finalized its recommendations to the 2022 session of the Georgia Legislature.
Rather than raising the minimum age of compulsory schooling, officials should ensure that schools have enough guidance counselors and services for all students, said Kerry Pritchard, the manager of Accountability & External Affairs with the Department of Education.
“We believe the funding would be better used for support service,” she said.
The mandated counselor-to-student ratio in Georgia is currently one counselor to every 450 students. The best practice ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association is one counselor to every 250 students.
But not all schools in Georgia meet the state minimum, said Young, adding he knows of one counselor working with 700 students.
“It’s not uncommon for counselors to wear additional hats that go outside of best practice,” said Young.
McKenzie Cagle, a counselor in Hall County, said she and her fellow counselors often take on additional tasks such as scheduling, guiding registration, leading parent teacher meetings, assisting with mental health crisis management, finding other counseling resources, and helping students apply for colleges, scholarships, and financial aid.
With the many responsibilities counselors have, Kim Browning, another Hall County counselor, notes that the job is constantly busy. The workload is never ending, which makes it hard for them to see students personally.
“A lot of kids fall through the cracks due to the sheer numbers,” said Clarence Jones, a retired Hall County school counselor. “It would be better to have more counselors per student … that’s a no-brainer.”