Fairfax Co. schools gets $13.5 million to expand number of counselors, psychologists

Virginia’s largest school system has been awarded a five-year, $13.5 million grant that will be used to expand its pool of school counselors, psychologists and social workers.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded the grant to Fairfax County Public Schools, Superintendent Michelle Reid said at a school board meeting last week.

The funding will be used to recruit new staff members and provide professional development to current school system employees. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey recently painted a dire picture of mental health challenges teenagers are facing in the aftermath of the pandemic.

John R. Lewis High School in Springfield hosted a town hall about mental health and schools this week, featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

“We know that students learn best when they feel safe, intellectually, physically and emotionally,” said Reid.

The school system’s initiative to add staff, though, comes during a shortage of school counselors and psychologists. Recruiting and retaining school-based mental health staff members is competitive, Reid said.

Fairfax County has budgeted for 588.5 full-time school counselors, 184.5 full-time school social workers and 184.5 full-time school psychologists, a spokeswoman said in an email. Some of those positions include part-time employees, so the actual number of school-based mental health providers is higher.

“These are key staff,” Reid said. “And when we’re short of our school-based mental health support staff, that just creates more anxiety and honestly, more of a concern.”

She said the county has “multiple vacancies that we could fill” but didn’t provide a number during the meeting.

Responding to school board member Ricardy Anderson’s question, Reid said it’s unclear how the positions will be funded once the grant expires.

“We are really thinking about providing targeted and timely health mental health consultation to both students and staff, reduce caseload and really provide a more present approach to student needs,” she said.

Starting next month, according to Reid’s presentation about the grant, the county will begin its recruitment and hiring efforts. Fairfax County has already started hiring teachers for next school year.

The funding, Reid said, will enable the county to “recruit across broader audiences” and ensure current staff members have lower caseloads.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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