When Brian Coleman became a school counselor seven years ago, he never expected to be helping a suicidal student he couldn’t make eye-contact with, from his living room, wearing the kind of clothes he usually reserves for a lazy day at home.
But, for the past year, that’s been the reality for Coleman and thousands of school counselors nationwide.
“It’s often a shock to parents and guardians to hear that their child is suicidal,” said Coleman, the counseling department chair at Jones College Prep, a selective enrollment public school in Chicago, and the 2019 National Counselor of the year. “Processing that live with a family, [figuring out] what the next steps in the process will be and how I can be of support is already extremely difficult. And it’s just bizarre doing it in my sweats, in my home, with people I can’t see.”
School counselors—who can be tasked with everything from scheduling courses to student orientation to helping teachers with classroom management—were already stretched thin before the pandemic. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. But the national ratio was 1 to 430 in the 2018-2019 school year, the latest year for which data are available, the organization says. The economic downturn brought on by the pandemic has squeezed state budgets, making a school counselor hiring spree unlikely.
And this year is full of curveballs. Counselors in remote or hybrid schools can’t casually touch base with a student in the hallway and see that they might be in need of a chat. Kids need help coping with isolation and anxiety in the pandemic. Parents can easily listen to virtual counseling sessions. Students can keep their cameras off, making connection harder. Even with cameras on, building rapport can be tough.
In fact, 68 percent of counselors listed having access to students in a virtual environment as challenging or extremely challenging this school year, according to an ASCA survey of 7,000 counselors, conducted in October 2020. And 62 percent of counselors said the same about providing counseling and lessons to students in a virtual environment.
“I think it takes a little longer to form that bond. … I just miss the interaction with them,” said Lydia McNeiley, a counselor at Scott Middle School in Hammond, Ind. “I think they miss the interaction with us. But we’re finding ways.”
Virtual counseling can offer some advantages
There are some surprise silver linings. For one thing, virtual counseling appointments can be simpler to schedule, which makes a huge difference for kids who are reluctant to talk with an adult about their problems.
“I think there’s a heck of a lot more accessibility,” said Kristina MacBury, the principal of Sarah Pyle Academy, a nontraditional public high school in Christiana, Del., that focuses on dropout prevention and personalized learning.
The school had contracted with a third-party service that was coming in pre-pandemic to do one-on-one counseling, only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Now, students have the flexibility to schedule a time that works for them.
What’s more, the pandemic has allowed MacBury to shop around for the right counselors, reaching out as far away as Iowa. “You can access anybody throughout the country,” she said. “It maximizes the ability to find the right person.”
It can also be a lot easier for students— particularly shy kids who might not have felt comfortable walking down the hall to an unfamiliar office to share sensitive emotions—to just click a Zoom link.
“I think that some students feel more comfortable having the camera off and just letting it out,” McNeiley said. “And they may not feel comfortable coming into an office setting.” She’s noticed that some students will keep their camera off for the first few sessions, but turn it on once she’s developed a rapport with them. She’s hoping her school keeps virtual counseling as an option for those types of students, even after the pandemic ends.
Megan Bledsoe, a counselor at Discovery Middle School in Vancouver, Wash., near the Oregon border, works with some students who just write answers to her questions in the video conferencing service’s chat function. “They want to see my face, they want to hear me talk, but they are just going to type,” she said. “So great, I’ll meet you wherever you are at.”
‘I could be in front of anybody, anywhere, at any time.’
When students have online counseling sessions, it is often impossible to keep parents from being part of the picture. That can be uncomfortable for some counselors.
“I always assume the worst. What is the most awkward?” Coleman said. He pictures “the student sitting in the living room with everyone around him and they’re not wearing headphones and the family is hearing what I’m saying. … I could be in front of anybody, anywhere at any time.”
But there are some big upsides, he added. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to connect with families.
Parents are grateful for the opportunity to listen in, which they likely would not have been able to do if the sessions were in a classroom at school.
Lauren, a Maryland mother, saw that the pandemic, especially the big changes in routine, had started to wear on her 6-year-old daughter, Zoe, who is on the autism spectrum. “When she is frustrated and overwhelmed it comes out as angry,” said Lauren, who asked to be referred to by her first name to protect her privacy.
Motivated in part by her school’s many pandemic-related offers for online counseling, Lauren signed Zoe up. The first session, in February, was “the getting to know you,” Lauren said. “But I could hear Zoe starting to open up.”
Lauren isn’t so sure Zoe would have been as receptive to talking to a counselor in person. “She’s a lot more comfortable on a screen than she is with somebody in front of her,” until she has a relationship with them, Lauren said. Still, Lauren knows, “there’s some things you can’t do online—you can’t grip a stress ball, or say, ‘I feel this in my body here’ ” and point to a particular area, like the stomach.
One Washington, D.C., mom, who preferred not to be named to protect her family’s privacy, noticed even before the pandemic that her sensitive kindergartner might need help processing “big emotions.” Her daughter got angry and frustrated and would lash out—sometimes physically—at her younger sister, or hit herself.
Now what her daughter calls “feelings class” is a favorite part of the virtual school week. The mother sits in on the appointments, which would be unlikely in a typical school counseling session. She stays in a quiet corner of the room and tries not to interrupt or comment. She likes having the opportunity to know what her daughter is saying, and to hear the counselor’s suggestions and strategies, so that she can reinforce them outside school.
On the other hand, though, her daughter and the counselor often do art projects together to explore emotions. The kindergartner wants to share her art, or collaborate with her counselor, which is a lot tougher to do online.
One of the things her daughter has said she’s looking forward to most on the return to in-person school: meeting her “feelings teacher” in person.
Counselors have found creative strategies to connect.
Lisa DiMurro, the counselor at Franklin Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash., tried her best to interact with as many students as possible when her school was all virtual. Each week, she sent a personalized audio message to every child who chose to do a weekly social-emotional learning lesson she posted to Seesaw. Typically, about half the school participated, meaning DiMurro sent about 200 messages each week.
“It took me hours,” said DiMurro, whose school has transitioned to a combination of in-person and remote learning. “I was working every night and weekend.”
She also moved a long-beloved school tradition—kindness week, typically held at the end of January—to cyberspace, by giving her students a “kindness challenge” to complete each day. And every Wednesday that her school was virtual-only, DiMurro invited all students to come join her at lunch via video conference. She ended up with a nice group of “regulars” who wanted to continue to connect to school.
Inspired by another counselor’s Twitter post, McNeiley, the Indiana counselor, created a “bitmoji office”—a cozy, virtual version of her office back at school. On one page, McNeiley’s avatar is doing a yoga pose, accompanied by a kitten on a bean bag chair.
Students can click on different parts of the office to learn more about McNeiley (and her dogs) and find links to resources for dealing with stressful situations. Students can use a form to request a formal appointment or give her a quick snapshot of how they are feeling with a “virtual temperature check.”
Bledsoe, the Discovery Middle School counselor, typically has her students come and meet informally in small groups when they are physically at school. Once the school went all-virtual, she kept up the practice, inviting kids to just hang out with her on Zoom, and play games or watch a silly video together. That way her students can get to know her outside of a more-formal counseling session.
But Bledsoe—and many of her students—miss the face-to-face contact. “There still is a large number of our students where they really only want to engage with someone in person,” she said.
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as ‘I Miss the Interaction’: The Pandemic Has Thrown Curveballs at School Counselors