Battling twin pandemics: COVID-19 and racism


New York City, the state and the nation are gripped in twin pandemics: racism and COVID-19.

As we write this, this same city, state and country celebrate both National School Counseling Week and Black Lives Matter in Schools Week. As Bronx-based professors of school counseling, former school counselors, and anti-racist white accomplices, we know that our profession is key to helping students challenge both pandemics.

The demands of Black Lives Matter in School — fully supported by the MORE Caucus of UFT are to:

• End zero tolerance (create restorative justice)
• Mandate Black history/ethnic studies
• Hire more Black teachers/educators
• Fund more school counselors, not cops

The purpose of National School Counseling Week is to increase the support and knowledge of appropriate roles of school counselors and school counseling programs at all grade levels as a key tool fighting twin pandemics.

New York City employs more cops than school counselors with zero evidence of effectiveness of school “safety” officers. Research shows school counselors implementing school counseling programs increase attendance, lower behavioral issues, and are more likely to have students graduate and enter college and successful careers.

Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to defund $1 billion from the New York Police Department — and lied. New York state mandated elementary school counseling programs in every elementary school in 2019.

The current school counselor-to-student ratio in the state is 471-to-1, but the national recommendation is 250-to-1 — or less.

We also want to end the use of the “G-word” — “guidance counselor” is steeped in racism and classism. And too many school counselors do inappropriate roles — discipline, paperwork, and not all have been trained in anti-racism.

At least 80 percent of school counselor time should be direct and indirect services with students — group and individual counseling, and advising a plan for every student annually, and school counseling curriculum lessons.

The lack of funding for school counselors, lack of requiring elementary school counselors, high school counselor-to-student ratios, and lack of training for building leaders in how school counselors should do their jobs, suggest the state remains unwilling to unearth and reconcile racist policies and practices that, themselves, produce developmental inequalities.

We can respond to the emergence of issues (like the exacerbation of mental health concerns) by attempting to plug holes in an ever-combusting dam, or by hiring school counselors who help to create new structures that help prevent the emergence of the very concerns we wish to address.

Anti-racist work must be preventative, and move beyond individual and group counseling. This requires engaging all stakeholders in interrogating racist policies, and co-creative protective school environments, supporting students of color in their holistic development.

From the collection and disaggregation of data, to the identification of racist school-based practices, and the forming of asset-rich school-family-community partnerships — school counselors possess unique skills.

At Lehman College, we’ve made anti-racism a centerpiece of our curriculum, and our school counselor candidates and recent alums reflect that training. The same is true for Manhattan College, where school counseling students have received unique training in the integration of hip-hop-based approaches into their online small group work to aid students in processing and making sense of emergent stressors surrounding the twin pandemics.

A commitment to Black Lives Matter in schools must focus on the establishment of school ecosystems devoid of racist policies and practices, and requires statewide legislation that offers school counselors who are best positioned to engage in that work for all kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

Levy is an assistant professor of school counseling at Manhattan College, and Chen-Hayes is a professor of counselor education and school counseling at Lehman College.

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