Counseling Today, Features

School counseling in the time of the coronavirus

By Laurie Meyers September 28, 2020

“School counselor” is a deceptively simple title. In reality, school counselors play many roles, including social and emotional educator, academic adviser, conflict mediator, wellness coach, mental health therapist, student champion, educational collaborator and family liaison.

Now, with the advent of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, many school counselors have become connectors and comforters-in-chief — not just to students but to parents and school staff.

Last spring, schools began closing in response to the pandemic. According to Education Week, 48 states; four U.S. territories; Washington, D.C.; and the Department of Defense Education Activity eventually ordered or recommended school closures affecting at least 50.8 million public school students. Suddenly, students, families, counselors, teachers and administrators all had to find a way to virtually re-create their in-person school routines. This already-challenging shift was complicated by the significant number of students who lacked access to high-speed internet or desktop, laptop or tablet computers.

Even before the pandemic, civil rights and education groups had been decrying what they had dubbed the “homework gap” because many teachers were increasingly assigning work that required internet access. Already at a disadvantage, these disenfranchised students — many of whom were Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) — now faced being completely locked out of school academic activities for the rest of the year.

According to “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap,” a recent report by organizations that include the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Urban League, when the wave of school closures occurred, 16.9 million children lacked high-speed home internet access (a number that included 1 in 3 BIPOC families), and 7.3 million did not have a computer or tablet. Many schools spent the spring and summer scrambling to provide devices and internet access to students — a task that was still incomplete going into the new school year. Stories of students struggling to keep up with online instruction on cell phones are still not uncommon.

In addition, when the economy took a nosedive as the coronavirus spread, it made it hard to focus on anything but survival for many families. But even financially secure families found it challenging to provide the ideal learning environment as — in many cases — parents working from home with multiple children wrestled with carving out a physical space and a time for each person to be online. Students missed getting to see their friends and participating in extracurricular activities. Sports seasons were canceled. The theater curtains never went up on school plays. Rites of passage such as prom and graduation ceremonies largely fell by the wayside.

And now it is fall, meaning a brand new school year. Even so, in many parts of the country, the football fields and stands will remain empty, the marching band instruments will stay silent and there will be no homecoming dances. Things are decidedly not back to normal. For that matter, there is relatively widespread belief that “normal” will never return. No one knows what the future will hold.

So, it’s not surprising that parents, students and school personnel are all feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Continuing to hold classes online while simultaneously ensuring that students and families have the needed technological resources — or, in some cases, the absolute basics, such as enough food to eat — continues to be a team effort.

Because safeguarding the mental, emotional and physical welfare of students is the essence of what school counselors do, these professionals have typically been at the center of the problem-solving process since the arrival of the coronavirus. They have conducted check-in phone calls to make sure students had the necessary equipment and internet access; helped parents (or grandparents) with technological troubleshooting; arranged for families in need to receive gift cards and community resources; responded to requests from teachers to find out why students weren’t showing up for online class (and then worked to resolve whatever the barrier was); reassured stressed-out parents; coached families on how to set up a structured school day; made mental health referrals for students in crisis; and provided moral support to teachers, administrators and each other. All while finding ways to continue offering academic guidance, focusing on students’ emotional and social learning, and giving specific support to children who were struggling with various personal and school-related issues.

Counseling Today spoke to several school counselors at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and as they prepared for the new 2020 fall semester to learn more about the challenges of performing their jobs in the midst of a pandemic.

 

Linda Colón
Counselor for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, Bancroft Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Bancroft is a Title I school (i.e., a facility that receives financial assistance due to a high population of students from families with low incomes) with a majority Latinx student body that also includes children of Ethiopian immigrants. Many of the families in the district live in poverty and often share relatively small living quarters with extended family.

Under normal circumstances, American Counseling Association member Linda Colón gives Bancroft’s youngest students their earliest lessons in social and emotional learning. By observing (and joining) students at play, reading aloud to them, incorporating toys, conversing with puppets and showing self-produced videos, Colón teaches prekindergartners and kindergartners basic social skills and how to recognize and regulate their emotions.

Getting to know students’ families and getting them invested in their children’s learning has always been an integral part of Colón’s counseling approach. She says that she’s “planting a seed” of awareness about the importance of education and attendance from an early age. Colón meets with parents to answer questions and, if requested, gives them advice on how to reinforce the social and emotional lessons that their children are learning.

Another benefit of establishing a relationship with families — and checking in regularly via phone or in person (during nonpandemic times) — is that Colón can get a better sense of the problems with which the families might be struggling. If they trust the counselors and teachers, she says, they will be more likely to reach out if they need help addressing emotional or mental health problems or accessing vital resources such as food and shelter.

Colón has been finding new ways to stay connected to her students and their families since March, when schools across the metropolitan region shut their doors and transitioned to online learning to finish out the school year because of the coronavirus. Schools in Washington, D.C., opted to begin the new year virtually as well, with an option to reevaluate in November.

“We can’t just say, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” Colón says. “We have to figure it out. We owe it to the kids.”

Before in-person learning ceased completely in March, Colón, knowing that the children were feeling anxious, created a lesson centered on “claiming strategies.” She reminded the children that when they were really afraid, it was helpful to talk about it, and she provided them with some age-appropriate safety information.

But the most important piece was the practical activity: washing hands. “We want to keep the germs away, so we wash our hands for 20 seconds,” Colón told the children, reinforcing the statement with videos and puppet demonstrations of hand-washing.

Colón also made videos so that the children’s social and emotional learning could continue virtually. The videos covered topics such as keeping a positive mindset, practicing breathing techniques and exercising mindfulness.

Colón also spoke to some of her students and their families one-on-one, either on the phone or via Microsoft Meetings, to find out how they were coping, to offer a sympathetic ear to stressed-out parents and to provide a reassuring presence for anxious children. She has given her phone number to parents and encouraged them to call or text her if they need help. As distance learning continues, she has been encouraging teachers to reach out as much as possible too. In addition, Colón has worked directly with parents to help solve technological problems.

This year, one of her initiatives is to help parents find a way to provide a space for children to take a break from their surroundings — a relaxation bubble. Many of her students live in small spaces, so the “bubble” might be something as simple and small as a blanket draped over a chair to make a mini tent.

Even at a young age, children are more aware of what is going on around them than most people realize, Colón says. They know that people are sick and dying, and at this age, children are less able to process the fear, which leaves them at risk of getting stuck in fight-or-flight mode. When they are at school, they can see their friends on the playground and have other opportunities to get away, but at home, exposure to trauma — even if only through the television — may be inescapable.

Activities such as drawing, watching a fun video or escaping to their relaxation bubble can help relieve the agitation, Colón says. The staff at Colón’s school has requested that markers, crayons and paper be sent to all the families.

Research also shows that when people are experiencing trauma, simply making a connection with a sympathetic presence can help, Colón says. So, she believes that keeping in contact with students and families is one of the most important things school staff can do right now.

“It’s finding a way to establish that connectedness,” she says. “When you’re in school, you’re waving to them [students and families], saying ‘Hi, good morning,’ singing a silly song. You’re doing something to make a connection that doesn’t have anything to do with academics.”

“I think our [school counseling] services are needed more than ever,” Colón says. “We’re the ones who are getting the pulse [of the community].”

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Natasha Griffith
Counselor for first through sixth grades and homeless coordinator, Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Height is also a Title I school, with many of its families living at or below the poverty level. Most of the students are Black — primarily first-generation Ethiopian. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of students are Latinx.

“I think this year, I’ll feel proud and accomplished if I can master Microsoft Teams and have whole class sessions,” says ACA member Natasha Griffith, whose school — like Colón’s — will be all virtual until at least November. She has modest goals for kicking off the school year, including holding a few smaller group sessions with students in fourth through sixth grades. Griffith’s role as the school’s homeless coordinator — which involves helping families in transitional housing find financial and community resources — can make that goal challenging. “I have to focus on the barriers that children and their parents face,” she says.

Griffith says she and her co-workers “hit the ground running” last spring when school buildings closed, distributing gift cards from the city’s public services department and money from a GoFundMe campaign to the neediest families and making sure that students had computers. But there will be an ongoing need for assistance during the current school year. In fact, although Griffith wasn’t officially working over the summer, she heard from families in search of additional gift cards and did some interpreting for the school’s technology contact, who doesn’t speak Spanish. Most of the students received computers or iPads in the spring, but stable internet access was a persistent problem, so the school has been setting families up with mobile hotspot devices (routers connected to a cellular data network that provides Wi-Fi connectivity).

Griffith will also continue to call families to check in on students who aren’t showing up online. If their absence is due to technological problems, she will make sure they get the resources they need. If the absence is because the students and families aren’t adapting well to virtual learning, then Griffith will do her best to help them navigate the unfamiliar territory and highlight how important it is for students to participate so that they don’t fall behind. “So many students weren’t participating [last spring],” she says. Even if families aren’t experiencing technological difficulties, many of them still aren’t sold on virtual learning, Griffith says.

Unfortunately, as is the case in many communities across the country, there will be cases in which Griffith isn’t able to get in touch with families. The counseling staff at Height does work closely with a social worker from Washington’s department of public health who is responsible for connecting families with resources, and Griffith says that she has been able to accomplish a lot. Even so, the reality is that educational continuity is incredibly difficult for schools to provide during the pandemic.

As she did last spring, Griffith will continue to help bridge the gap between parents and teachers. Many parents are feeling overwhelmed, and coping with online learning is yet another source of frustration for them. Griffith provides a listening ear and works toward helping families see that the school staff is there to help, not to judge. She is also concentrating on developing lesson plans that help students navigate the virtual landscape and encouraging them to ask for help when they need it.

Another challenge Griffith is facing is that she has no designated “classroom time” online. To present lessons, she has to be flexible and grab any spare time that teachers have in their class schedules. To supplement, she is planning on developing videos covering the social and emotional learning topics that make up the core part of her counseling curriculum, including managing anger, building self-esteem, learning to identify emotions, developing resilience and using tools for academic success. She has been rearranging her apartment to carve out a space for filming. The videos will be posted on Microsoft Teams for the students to access on demand.

In the spring, Griffith created a few virtual “lunch bunches” for small groups of students. She and the children would play games such as self-care bingo; squares included actions such as taking a shower, eating breakfast, listening to your body, taking a break, meditating, calling a friend and saying something good about yourself. She would also ask students about what they were doing outside of their classroom lessons. “It gave them a place to talk about missing their friends,” she says. “It was also something social that wasn’t related to school.”

Griffith is starting up the virtual lunches again during the current school year. She would also like to find a way to virtually re-create the in-person restorative circles that she used to hold in school. The activity, which usually involved 20-22 students, was focused on building community. Griffith would ask open-ended questions (usually focused on having respect for fellow students) and present students with a talking piece to pass around the circle. Students could choose to keep the piece and speak, or pass it on.

“I think restorative circles work well because they allow students to express their feelings about various social and emotional learning topics,” she says. “It allows students to take ownership and be an involved participant in the classroom community.”

Griffith will continue to connect with students any way she can while her school is held online, but she believes there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. “Especially for these kids,” she says. “Saying in person, ‘You’ve got this. You can do this.’ That’s what I live for as a school counselor … [to] make a difference and tell them they matter.”

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Judy Trigiani
Counselor for kindergarten through sixth grades, Spring Hill Elementary School, McLean, Virginia.

Spring Hill has a large population of international students, many of them the children of diplomats and business people from around the world. Some of these families temporarily relocated to their home countries to wait out the pandemic and have not yet returned to the U.S.

The plan for ACA member Judy Trigiani’s school district is to operate exclusively online through at least the first quarter of the school year and then to reevaluate. But as Trigiani noted at the end of the prior school year, one of the biggest burdens of the pandemic for people is not knowing when it will end. Or, in the case of schools, when bringing students back in person will not carry the threat of widespread community spread. “We are trying to plan for the unknown. We don’t know when we’ll go back yet,” Trigiani says.

In the meantime, Trigiani and the rest of the staff at Spring Hill continue to try to keep things as “normal” as possible. Traditionally, the school’s year starts with an open house and a new family and student orientation. This year is no exception; however, the events will all be virtual. Families and students will connect via Blackboard Collaborate, where staff will introduce themselves and talk about the school community, scheduling and resources available to parents. A question-and-answer session will follow. The school is also hosting town hall meetings and a kindergarten orientation to present new resources and answer questions.

This year, there will also be a technology orientation to demonstrate Blackboard features such as the icons for accessing the microphone and video and “raising” your hand; how to magnify the screen; agreeing, disagreeing and reacting to the teacher and fellow students with emojis; and where to find the chat box, Trigiani says. The technology orientation will also cover some of the other programs the school will be using. Blackboard Collaborate enables staff to post videos and PowerPoints and share their screens. The tech session will also demonstrate how to access the website and the asynchronous learning area (video sessions that students can watch on their own schedule). Trigiani has also been preparing PowerPoint presentations for parents on topics such as setting up their children’s workspaces and how to talk to children about COVID-19.

Trigiani and the rest of the counseling staff will continue to visit the virtual classrooms every morning to check in and say, “We’re here if you need anything.” There are 18 classrooms per counselor, and counselors go into one classroom each day, she explains. Sometimes, they conduct a lesson. Other times, Trigiani will show up early just to chat with the kids, asking them to use the emojis to let her know how they are doing. If a student expresses distress or Trigiani hears or sees something that causes her concern, she meets with the student individually online and works to address the issue.

Individual counseling, social skills instruction, school counseling programs, parent meetings, the identification and sharing of resources — all of the normal work of school counselors also continues virtually. In addition, Trigiani works with parents who are struggling to cope with their children’s behavioral, social and emotional issues. If necessary, the counseling staff makes referrals to outside mental health resources.

The key, Trigiani says, is something that one of her former bosses used to say: “Keep your community and people informed, and stay as positive and flexible as you can.”

Trigiani believes that technology will continue to become more and more critical to school counseling, even after schools decide to return to the in-person model. Not only will retaining a virtual element allow medically fragile students better access to education, but it will also help counselors prepare students for 21st-century jobs by enabling them to give students training in online social skills, Trigiani asserts.

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Randi Vogel
Counselor for sixth grade, Thomas Pyle Middle School, Bethesda, Maryland.

Pyle also has a significant number of international students, which means that the student population is somewhat transitory.

“This pandemic has really brought to light the social-emotional needs of our students,” ACA member Randi Vogel says. “Even students who we considered very solid are having difficulties.”

In the spring, several students who were already struggling with mental health issues deteriorated further with the loss of a structured school environment and ended up needing to be hospitalized, she says. But even students who had no history of mental health issues were experiencing anxiety and stress.

After school moved online, Vogel and her team put out an announcement on the school portal that they were available via email and Zoom. They also sent out regular surveys asking students how they were feeling, if they needed anything or whether they just wanted to share.

One girl replied that she needed a Chromebook laptop to keep up with her school assignments. Another student said, “I miss you — and I fell and broke my arm.” Some students expressed that they just really wanted to talk, so Vogel and her team connected with them individually via video chats.

The surveys also asked students what they were doing to take care of themselves and to whom they had reached out. Every time that Vogel spoke to a student, she would ask them what they were doing for themselves.

Vogel’s district is starting the new school year with virtual-only instruction and will reassess in November. Although many students may have initially enjoyed the novelty of learning from home, that sentiment generally seems to have worn off, Vogel says. “I have heard from several parents and students that they truly miss the school experience — chatting in the halls with their friends, switching classes, the cafeteria, after-school activities, the bus rides to and from school.”

Although her school can’t re-create those experiences, the days will be more structured and organized for students this year, she says. There will be more live and interactive instruction, in contrast to this past spring, when teachers primarily gave lessons via “asynchronous learning,” which involved using previously recorded videos that students would watch on their own. Teachers then offered online “office hours” to field follow-up questions.

“Parents definitely want more ‘live’ instruction and for more of the day to mimic what occurs in the building,” Vogel says. Although this may help virtual lessons to feel more like regular class, she anticipates that students will have difficulty being on their screens for so many hours, despite the breaks that have been built into the schedule.

“We, as counselors, will continue to reach out to our students to see how we can help them virtually,” she says. “This might look like lunch bunches or initiating one-on-one Zoom calls as check-ins.”

Vogel says her counseling department really prided itself on always being available to students during the day. In fact, they had several students who were issued “flash passes” so they could come to the counseling office anytime they needed a break. “Once we are back in the building, I expect that to resume,” she says. “However, it is much more challenging to establish relationships with middle schoolers via Zoom.”

Because so many students are struggling or just need a little extra help coping, Vogel and her colleagues will be incorporating more mindfulness and stress-reduction activities and class meetings into the virtual day for students. “I think it will be very beneficial to have the students hear from one another how they are managing and that they are not alone with their feelings,” she says.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA School Counselor Connection (counseling.org/membership/aca-and-you/school-counselors/school-counselor)

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/)

Books & DVDs (imis.counseling.org/store)

Books

  • A School Counselor’s Guide to Small Groups: Coordination, Leadership, and Assessment edited by Sarah I . Springer, Lauren J. Moss, Nader Manavizadeh and Ashley Pugliese
  • Critical Incidents in School Counseling, Third Edition, by Tarrell Awe Agahe Portman, Chris Wood and Heather J. Fye
  • Developing and Managing Your School Guidance and Counseling Program, Fifth Edition, by Norman C. Gysbers and Patricia Henderson
  • Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, Third Edition, by John J. Murphy

DVDs

  • Acute and Severe Behavior Problems presented by Dave Scott
  • Bullying in Schools: Six Methods of Intervention presented by Ken Rigby
  • Managing Conflict in Schools: A New Approach to Disciplinary Offense presented by John Winslade
  • Quality Circle Time in the Secondary School presented by Jenny Mosley

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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