Meeting students’ mental health needs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been and remains a moving target for school counselors, says Dodie Limberg, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina. However, one thing has become clear: School counseling will never be the same.
“We can’t go back to normal. We shouldn’t go back to the way things were. We need to have our hand on the pulse of what’s needed and how our role addresses that,” says Limberg, an associate editor of the Professional School Counseling journal. “We started the [2021-22] school year in hopes that it would be better or ‘normal,’ but COVID is still occurring and school counselors are trying to adjust as it’s happening. … We are not in a place where we have clear solutions, and that’s a hard thing to come to terms with because we’re helpers.”
Although most school districts have returned to in-person instruction, the environment is not the same as before the pandemic. School counselors are still navigating the unknown in many ways, Limberg notes, such as the challenge of making students feel included when they are quarantined or taken out of class because they may have been exposed to the virus through travel or contact with a family member who has it. School routines and structure have returned in fits and starts for students this year; uncertainty remains an ongoing theme.
“We need to have some grace with ourselves and our students and meet them where they’re at,” says Limberg, an associate editor of Counseling and Values. “We’re still working with students — we have to be — and at the same time, figuring out ‘What does that look like now?’ I really admire how our field as a whole, all counselors, is coping with this. We’re trying what we can, doing what we can in our ability to help people. It’s a lot, and it’s not over.”
School counseling is one of Limberg’s areas of expertise. She, along with teams of researchers, recently conducted three different studies on COVID-19’s impact on school counselors and their work with students throughout the pandemic. The research — two national studies and one involving school counselors in South Carolina — also focused on school counselor burnout and the ways COVID-19 has heightened disparities among students and schools.
Limberg and her co-researchers heard many examples of how school counselors have gotten creative and proactive to support the mental health needs of students, particularly during the 2020-21 school year when many students were learning from home. In cases where families didn’t have internet access, school counselors contacted parents via text message, personally checked on students in the community or helped transform school buses into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.
School counselors also wielded technology to support students, such as creating a “quiet room” in Google Classroom that students could visit virtually when they needed a break or a moment of calm.
Now, in year two of the pandemic, school counselors continue to meet challenge after challenge, says Limberg, a past president of the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.
“A school counselor’s role is ideally more preventative. But it’s shifted to become more reactive [during the pandemic],” Limberg says. “We’re functioning in a state of crisis and doing triage work, while still trying to do classroom guidance, running small groups and other school counseling tasks. We are helping [students’] needs on an individual level and struggling to do so [on a] comprehensive [level].”
The pandemic revealed just how much students get out of school besides academics, including social-emotional learning, regular meals and physical activity. It also highlighted the disparities among students, Limberg adds. For example, some parents found ways to augment remote learning and non-academic aspects of school, whereas others couldn’t because they were working and maxed out themselves or because they couldn’t afford it.
The pandemic also illustrated the importance of mental health. Teachers and school administration turned to school counselors to draw on their much-needed expertise in fostering wellness and mental health, and they realized the pivotal and skilled role school counselors play in a school community. The downside, however, is that many school counselors are now constantly “on demand” by both school colleagues and parents, which has led to them being overworked and, in some cases, burned out.
“We’re just beginning to understand COVID’s impact and how it changes our roles,” Limberg says. “We’re still experiencing COVID-19 and haven’t even scratched the surface of what this will all lead to. How do we prepare and adjust our services while we’re still in the process of understanding what this is? But at same time, it’s hopeful that school counselors are being recognized as an important role for mental health in schools.”
The key to maintaining student mental health and wellness in school settings in the wake of COVID-19, Limberg stresses, is for school counselors and mental health counselors in the community to work together. Viewing all mental health professionals (including school counselors, mental health therapists, rehabilitation counselors, and marriage and family therapists) as all on the same team is an important part of this collaborative approach.
“We need to collaborate, community-wide. We need to not operate in silos. There’s so much need and not enough services,” she says. “Recognizing each other’s identities while working together is the way forward. … We’re all counselors, [so] how can we work together to help?”
Contact Dodie Limberg at DLIMBERG@sc.edu
Find resources for school counselors at the American Counseling Association’s School Counselor Connection page: counseling.org/knowledge-center/school-counselor-connection
Bethany Bray is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.