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House Bill 829 – School Counselors; staffing ratios, flexibility.

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

February 16, 2022

By Carly Ward, MSW Intern

            The purpose of HB 829 in the current Virginia General Assembly is to help schools provide more mental health support to students. It does this in two ways: It confirms previous changes in the required ratios for the number of counselor positions, and, due to the shortage of available licensed school counselors, it gives schools flexibility to hire counselors who are not licensed school counselors but have other qualifications.

For the 2020-2021 school year, the required allotment was one full time counselor to every 375 students in elementary schools, 325 students in middle schools, and 300 students in high schools (an improvement in many schools, although the American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 1 counselor per 250 students). For 2021-2022, it was changed to one full time counselor or other licensed counseling professional per 325 students in grades K through 12. This is more of a “one size fits all” approach, rather than breaking it down between school levels (i.e. elementary, middle, or high).

Although schools are challenged in reaching compliance with this ratio, leaving the counselor to student minimum requirement intact is a positive step, and requires hiring more staff to meet the needs of the students who may benefit from that support. However, it does raise the question: What about the schools who fall in that middle ground? Schools who have, for example, 350 students, not a substantial enough amount to hire another counselor, but enough to have a need for one.

On the other hand, some would also argue that the “one size fits all” plan is not the most efficient way to address the needs of the students at different grade levels. Students struggle with different mental health needs based on their age or stage of development. Students who are older may warrant more assistance because their needs and experiences are more extensive than their younger counterparts. In some instances, this may be true, but still, are student needs related to trauma or mental health disorders less important for younger children?

            I want to focus now on the issue of using other licensed professionals that could potentially be employed by schools. These are individuals who are licensed, counseling professionals, such as licensed clinical social workers or licensed professional counselors, but not licensed school counselors. These professionals would be provided a provisional school counseling license and allowed to work in the schools for up to three years, with a possible two-year extension, but there is a catch. In order to consistently be able to work within the schools, they would need to pursue a full license in school counseling. Earlier amendments would have required that these professionals obtain a full license within two years, but the final bill amended that requirement to say they must make substantial progress towards full licensure as a school counselor during the time of employment.

The licensure issue raises its own set of questions: With schools being in dire need of the help, why require so much of someone who could feel like their degree and experience already qualifies them to successfully do the job? How would this be handled without undermining the special qualifications inherent in a school counseling degree and licensure?

            As of this writing, HB829 has passed the House and has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Education and Health. I support this bill with its amendments. I am in full support of lowering the burden placed on school professionals, especially school counselors, given the increased need for mental health support in schools. I do think that there are some aspects to this bill that are good conversation starters, meaning the points made could be interpreted differently based on who is reading and understanding it. There are places where I feel more clarification is necessary, but overall, it is a very strong start to providing more mental health support for students.

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