Skip to content

New York schools need more social workers: Rural districts can’t retain, afford to compete with urban ones

School districts across the state of New York are facing a shortage of social workers.

According to an audit by the state comptroller’s office, New York schools are not providing enough social workers per school.

The report showed 423 schools are without social workers, while most of the schools with at least one social worker do not meet the recommended ratio of one social worker to every 250 students. Rural school districts are seeing a retention problem since they cannot afford to compete with their urban counterparts.

Martha Shultz, northeast division director of the National Association of Social Workers New York State Chapter, said a primary issue is noncompetitive salaries, since district leadership might not understand what a school social worker does.

“That stems from this kind of misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, or desire to learn about really what is social work and what can they offer,” Shultz contended. “In schools, there’s been a push for every building to have a school social worker. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that school leadership or even the school board knows what a social worker does at a school. They just know they have to have one.”

Schultz pointed out another part of the problem is a pipeline issue, because many rural colleges and universities do not offer graduate-level social work programs. She has seen numerous empty positions without applicants, with a lack of education by district leadership being a deterrent.

Schultz added social workers might start at the bottom in school districts, despite many years of experience in other areas of social work. The issue of social-worker shortages goes beyond schools and has reached the state’s Office for Mental Health.

Samantha Fletcher, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers New York State Chapter, said social workers are bearing the brunt of the shortage. One challenge she found is the growth in caseloads social workers have to deal with, arguing high caseloads contribute to faster burnout.

“They don’t want to work in a situation where they know they’re in a lose-lose position; that they know they can’t give their clients what they need,” Fletcher explained. “If you’re seeing eight or more clients a day, how do you have time to do a suicide evaluation for another client or deal with a crisis from another client.”

In 2021, two bills were introduced in the state Legislature to address caseload caps for social workers and for child protective service workers. Both are still in committee.