SOUTH BEND, Ind. — South Bend’s school board last week considered contracting with a firm that would connect special education students with psychologists via video chat.

Ultimately, the board was skeptical of the move. But it exhibits the impact of the national shortage of school psychologists on some districts, including South Bend.

The National Association of School Psychologists estimates that there is one school psychologist for every 1,400 students, research shows. That is well over the recommended ratio of one to 700, or one to 500 for needier populations.

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The NASP projects a cumulative shortage of close to 15,000 school psychologists by 2020.

Matt Johns, South Bend’s director of special education services, went before the board last week, seeking approval for the district to hire Presence Learning Inc. The platform provides K-12 schools access to a network of hundreds of licensed clinical professionals who work face-to-face with students via live, online video sessions.

“With a shortage in psychologists, this gives us an opportunity to meet the compliance deadline of the 50-day timeline for evaluations,” Johns said, explaining that the district doesn’t have enough professionals employed to adequately serve the high demand of students.

South Bend currently has eight full-time psychologists for school-age students and one for pre-school age students, Johns said. The district also has hired a psychology intern.

As of last week, there were still five vacant psychologist positions with SBCSC.

“We have paid for $3,500 worth of advertisement and haven’t got one application,” Johns said.

Online vs. in-person effectiveness

School board members in South Bend raised multiple concerns with the school using an online model to test students.

Board member Ruth Warren, a former principal in the district, questioned the effectiveness of having a student communicate with a professional online through Presence Learning rather than in person.

“Are we sure this will work?” Warren asked. “It just makes me nervous. Any time we introduce a child being tested one way versus a child being tested a different way, you are introduced to the possibility of an unreliable result.”

Warren and other board members recommended that the corporation explore the option of contracting out clinical services to local colleges and community partners, rather than outsourcing to a private company.

That approach is one that Renae Mayes, an educational psychology and school counseling professor at Ball State University, said she would recommend, too.

Mayes said the online model is a newer practice being used for psychological services, and it’s not one that much research has been done on to show the impact.

“We know there is a growing mental health need for children and adolescents. We don’t know of a lot of research that says that telehealth is most effective,” Mayes said. “What evidence exists to say that this is the best option rather than hiring more counselors, clinical and mental health professionals? More research is there to support that.”

Mayes said an online platform also may potentially hinder a professional’s ability to tie in “context” while testing a student. “Context” includes a wide range of themes including a student’s home and school environment and cultural background.

“This is serious. You aren’t just talking about offering tutoring services, you are talking about health,” Mayes said. “You want to do it right and keep students at the core.”

What’s happening at other schools?

Surrounding school districts are not reporting shortage issues like South Bend.

Lucha Ramey, spokeswoman for Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp., said that district is fully staffed with six psychologists serving the schools.

The psychologists are spread throughout the district, with each person responsible for approximately three buildings, Ramey said.

Three full-time and two retired school psychologists are contracted with the School City of Mishawaka, said Barb Michalos, the district’s director of exceptional learners. Each psychologist is responsible for “supporting staff when evaluation caseloads become high in number.”

Michalos said the school has not had extreme difficulty filling any vacant positions because of the relationships it has built with local colleges and universities that have school psychology programs. School City also offers internship placements.

“There is definitely a shortage of school psychologists in the state of Indiana,” Michalos said. “We are fortunate that we are a smaller district, and located in a city that has a sense of community.”

For now, the South Bend school trustees tasked Johns to do more research into all the options the district has to address the psychologist shortage and best serve students. He also was asked to gather research and present the board with testimony from other school districts that have used Presence Learning’s online model.

A communication plan for alerting parents about this new procedure was also requested.

“It’s going to be very important that parents understand that the students will be in front of a live person and that we will give them any kind of support that they need,” Board Vice President Leslie Wesley said.

The board could vote on the contract at its next meeting on Oct. 7.

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