One day a school psychologist might be assessing a student for special education services by observing them in class. The next, they could be meeting with families to discuss services and support for their student. And then sometimes the job means helping students directly with mental health support, by building relationships and establishing trust.
When COVID-19 closed schools nationally this spring, school psychologists like Rachel Hilsen weren’t able to observe students in class for assessments, or interview parents.
“In the spring, we weren’t sure … how long-term the situation would be, and so our guidance was to pause anything that we weren’t able to do virtually,” Hilsen said.
This fall, Hilsen and her fellow school psychologists in Portland Public Schools were tasked with finishing special education evaluations as well as re-evaluating students.
But some psychologists have been moved from the schools they were at in the spring, and throughout Oregon’s largest district, two full-time equivalent school psychologists were cut.
Gloria Ortiz is a school psychologist in the process of switching schools. Last year, she worked at Lane Middle School and a charter school. This year she’s transitioning to splitting time between Rigler and Ainsworth elementary schools. She said the changes add to an already stressful time between the pandemic and wildfire impacts.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Ortiz said.
“Many of us had already made arrangements with our teams, with our families, in terms of providing continuity of care — and obviously, that’s no longer the case.”
PPS said school psychologist assignments are adjusted every three years based on special education students. District officials said this year’s adjustment was later than usual due to a “reduction in state school funding.”
The district also cites increased school psychologist staffing at the district’s “special education assessment centers,” to help with the backlog of evaluations.
But some of those evaluations had already been started by school psychologists who were suddenly being reassigned.
“To be handing off an open case or an open evaluation to someone else when pieces of it are done and pieces of it are not done is pretty complicated,” Hilsen said.
And doing evaluations isn’t the only role school psychologists play, especially in distance learning.
“It feels like our role as mental health practitioners is taking a forefront in terms of its importance, and collaborating with teams to develop new systems for how to support kids, because suddenly, the types of needs that we see have changed,” Hilsen said.
School psychologists sent a letter to the district after the staffing changes were announced earlier this month. They asked the district to reconsider, and highlighted the need for stability in staffing and support for high-poverty schools, especially for those serving students with greater needs.
“We need your support in prioritizing students with disabilities by preventing the reduction of critical social-emotional and mental health services and the disruption of relationships school psychologists have formed with families, students, and teams during a time when they are most needed,” the letter said.
PPS said they’ve been able to bring in more counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals with money from the Student Investment Account, part of the Student Success Act, an Oregon law passed last year, which taxes business revenue to help schools
Hilsen actually moved into a somewhat different role this year under that funding, as a qualified mental health professional, at the same two schools she’s been at for years.
“It’s frustrating that I have to move into a different role to do the work that I want to do and that I’ve been trained to do,” Hilsen said.
But Hilsen and Ortiz said hiring new people to work with them may create barriers where students and teachers were already connected, particularly when families and kids are dealing with the stress of a pandemic and an economic recession.
“We put so much energy into building great relationships with kids and with families and with teachers,” Hilsen said.
“I feel like we have so much to offer,” Ortiz said. “There’s a lot that we do that isn’t necessarily recognized, and the cuts that were made to our staffing levels emphasize and reinforce that.”