How one Chicago school social worker is grappling with COVID’s toll on students

How one Chicago school social worker is grappling with COVID’s toll on students

Inside a staff bathroom at Piccolo Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side, Mary Difino wiped away tears and tried to catch her breath. It had been a long day in another stressful week.

A spate of fights and a string of cyberbullying incidents among students two months into the school year had taken a toll on Difino — the school’s only social worker.

In the last six years, she has juggled caseloads across two separate schools, participated in an 11-day teachers strike, and navigated a pandemic that upended schools for 18 months.

​​Still, Difino had harbored hopes that COVID-related disruptions had passed, and things might be getting back to normal. After all, this was supposed to be the year Chicago Public Schools — and its 322,000 students and 39,300 staff — recovered from the upheaval of the pandemic. This would be “one of the strongest years ever” in the district’s history, CEO Pedro Martinez said on the first day of school this fall.

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