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We continue with another installment of our summer-long radio education series, “Closing the COVID Gap.” Last week, we explored the millions of federal dollars flowing into the state that are dedicated to education relief.
School districts in West Virginia have more than $540 million through the American Rescue Plan to spend specifically for things like hiring more teachers, supporting existing ones, renovating buildings to create better airflow, and even to hire more school counselors.
Education reporter Liz McCormick spoke with Jefferson County middle school counselor Jen Mills over Skype to learn about her experience during the pandemic and about the social-emotional needs of students, teachers and school personnel going forward.
This transcript from the original broadcast has been lightly edited for clarity.
LIZ MCCORMICK: It’s been an incredibly challenging year for educators, for students and for parents, but also for school counselors like yourself. Talk with us about your responsibilities this past year as a school counselor in a pandemic. How did that differ from previous years?
JEN MILLS: There were so many facets that were affected that you don’t realize going into the year initially. In Jefferson County, where I work, our families had the choice to begin their year virtual or in-person, and we were about a 50/50 split between those two decisions. That was pretty representative of our whole county. So, it’s almost as though you’re a counselor at two different schools — for your in-person students, and then of course, for your virtual students. Parents were [also] not allowed in the building — that was challenging. Our virtual students, if they elected to go virtual, it was not always clear when they could come, when they couldn’t, [and] what they were included in. It was extremely challenging to connect and stay connected with our virtual students. We tried open office hours. We tried pushing into online classes. But that was a huge challenge as a school counselor; to connect in a meaningful way with those kiddos; to not know the scenario — where they are, who’s around them, you know. I really did not have that meaningful connection with my virtual students this year, and that was something that we struggled with all year.
MCCORMICK: We know that social-emotional health is a huge concern right now, after we’ve been experiencing such an unprecedented year. Many students have been emotionally traumatized, but we also know that a lot of support and funding is being dedicated to provide some relief in this area. Can you talk with us about this need? And what sort of advice would you give to a county in West Virginia where they might be struggling a bit more?
MILLS: I firmly believe that each school needs a full-time counselor, at least one. And counselors need to not have duties so that their time is spent to be there for the students so that they’re not having to rush to the cafeteria, or bus duty if they have a crying student, or if they have, you know, a crisis. If you value your counselor, it’s just going to make everything better, because counselors help everybody in the school, especially the students. Giving [counselors] the freedom to do their job, and the time in their day to do their job, to be there for the students, will only benefit your school.
MCCORMICK: As we continue to navigate and understand the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on our school children and on their mental health, there are studies that say it will cost thousands of dollars, per child, for several years before they get the adequate help that they need. Just looking at the hurdles ahead, do you think it will be a long time before we get back to a “normal,” in terms of social-emotional health?
MILLS: I saw students who have been virtual all year, and I don’t want people to feel like I’m attacking a decision if they decided to keep their kids virtual. Some kids thrived at it, and I completely get it. But, to answer your question, I saw some students come in to be tested at the end of the year who were so anxious, because they had not been around people that they were just sitting in the office and they were shaking, because they were not used to being around people. So, of course, every situation is different. I think that next year in our county, our days will look as they did before the pandemic, in the sense that they’ll be just as long. They’ll have their different periods, they won’t be traveling in pods, they’ll get to use the cafeteria, they’ll get to use their lockers. And I’m thinking about a storm moving away where the longer space between the lightning and the thunder — I think that the more time that goes by, we are putting a toe back into that land of normal.
MCCORMICK: We’re entering the summer months. We’ve got summer programs all across the states that are trying to inspire love again for school and that feeling of safety. Do you have any suggestions about coping strategies through the summer that you would share with teachers, parents and kids? What are some final thoughts that you would share?
MILLS: Thank you for asking that. I think that the message when we left for summer was definitely for our teachers and staff to recharge. But that’s sort of been a theme since the beginning: self-care and recharging. But for parents and students, I would say, give your kids a blank slate next year, because they get that at the school. You have a beautiful blank slate when you come back in the fall, and you’re more important than your grades. Next year is a great time to come back because it’s going to be new for a lot of people. So, if you have a student who’s really anxious, reach out to your counselor, because I have kids who are going to come in with me before classes start, even before our orientation, just to put a toe in that water, just so that they get some familiarity before they jump right in, because we don’t want anybody to suffer with that. [Parents] know [their] kid, so approach your counselor if there are things that they can do to help make that transition easier for them. But I think that just starting over and taking a breath, and letting last year go, and moving forward.
This episode of “Closing the COVID Gap” originally aired on West Virginia Morning on June 23, 2021.