Liz McCormick Published

Guidance Counselors Build Bridge With Students Amid Mental Health Concerns And COVID

Students, School, Masks, Teachers, Coronavirus Pandemic

Jen Mills has been a school counselor in Jefferson County, West Virginia for six years, and she’s been a middle school counselor there for four. Unlike school years past, she and her colleagues are navigating a global health pandemic.

“Last year, we’re planning field trips, we’re planning all these things, [but] this year, we’re just kind of in a holding pattern and trying to keep everybody safe,” Mills said.

Mills is among the more than 750 school counselors in the state who have had to step up and fill the gaps for reaching students during a challenging and stressful time in their lives. Such engagement for many, has had to come at a distance. But most of these counselors are determined to find creative ways to be there for children who they know depend on them for support.

For Mills, almost everything about her job this year feels brand new. Regardless of whether kids are attending school virtually or in person, it’s now much harder to connect with them.

For her in-person kids, masks make it challenging to hear or pick up on kids’ expressions or emotions. But Mills is finding ways to check on each student every day.

“I like to take the temperatures in the morning,” she said. “And that’s a really nice check in for me. So, I can sort of get my eyes on as many kids as I can and talk to them and just have a little bit of dialogue.”

Mills said it’s not typical for a school counselor to check the temperatures each morning, but she requested it since it lets her see how students are doing up close.

“During the onset of the coronavirus, school counselors in West Virginia went above and beyond,” said Stephanie Hayes, coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Student Support and Well-being.

Hayes said when the pandemic started, counselors provided information to parents about the most appropriate ways to communicate with and support their children during the pandemic.

“Counselors are using email, phone calls, letters, video chat, and a variety of technology platforms to provide social-emotional supports and resources and to meet the needs of students,” Hayes said.

Hayes said such support is a top priority for the WVDE. She noted social-emotional support is especially important during challenging times, like the coronavirus pandemic, because trauma can have deeply negative impacts on a child’s ability to learn.

Virtual students, though, are even harder to reach than in-person students.

About half of Jefferson County school kids have opted for virtual this fall compared to the rest of the state, where a majority of students have chosen to attend in-person when possible, according to the WVDE.

“For my virtual kids, it’s exponentially more challenging,” Mills said. “Because … just reaching them. And counseling for my virtual kids has been more about technology issues, and really [a] focus on academics versus the social-emotional aspect.”

Mills has also noticed something new this year. She’s not just hearing from the kids — she’s also hearing from parents who need help.

“I’ve heard a lot of kids and adults, not teachers, but parents say, ‘I’m really crying, and I don’t know why,’” she said. “That’s been my biggest presenting issue this year. ‘I’m crying, and I don’t know why’ from both adults and kids. And, it’s just their outlet of their release.”

Mills said she thinks she’s more needed this year than ever before by students, parents and teachers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in July highlighting the importance of reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. The agency points to students’ social and emotional needs. The CDC study found that keeping schools closed can create negative impacts from isolation.

The CDC estimates that on average, one in five kids experience some type of mental health condition. Yet only 16 percent of those kids with a condition receive any treatment. Agency experts say, however, most kids can receive this care in a school setting.

If students can’t be in a physical school setting, that creates more challenges.

“As much as is safe, and as much as we can, we need to find ways to connect,” Marianna Linz, chair of the psychology department at Marshall University, said. Linz specializes in pediatric psychology.

Linz said students must stay connected, whether through a socially distant visit or over digital platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. For personal mental health, Linz thinks connection is key and is especially important for young learners.

“As children are finding it more and more difficult to connect with each other socially, the longer that goes on, we worry about the impacts of that, in terms of them feeling more isolated,” Linz said. “So, we need to make sure we’re providing [teachers] with enough training and also enough assistance so that they can attend to all the needs of the kids.”

Linz acknowledged that the state’s ongoing challenges with substance abuse, including its opioid epidemic, may create a greater concern for students and their families.

“We know that kids that already were struggling before the pandemic hit are going to be more adversely affected,” she said. “And so, we want to be ready to meet those families with the extra support that they need, because that’s going to allow [students] to make better progress and avoid negative outcomes.”

Linz is also worried that more kids may ultimately end up dropping out of school as a result of isolation brought on by the pandemic.

School counselors work with a variety of individuals at the school who are connected with at-risk students, according to Hayes at the WVDE. They do this to ensure all needs are being met — with heightened attention right now during the pandemic.

“School counselors work with other members of the school staff to develop a plan to check on students on a regular basis,” Hayes said. “[They] also provide education and resources to remind other school personnel of the continued responsibility as mandated reporters and the responsibility to students who may be more at-risk during this stressful time.”

Teachers are required to report home-life issues they observe.

It’s also important for students to learn coping mechanisms to identify and deal with stress, Linz said. It’s especially critical during unprecedented times.

“Sometimes it just requires somebody who can help you sort through things,” she said. “Mental health and physical health are really not any different. We wouldn’t hesitate to go to the doctor when we’re sick. When we’re feeling challenged and stressed in ways that are impacting us and our families, we shouldn’t hesitate to reach out and get that same type of assistance.”