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School Counselors Help Children and Families Cope during COVID Crisis

The impact of COVID will be felt for years to come, and one of the areas of most concern is children. Schools were faced with challenges that they had never seen before and had to pivot overnight to serve their students. School counselors were at the heart of mental health services provided to students—often from afar—during the shutdown phase of the pandemic. As the new school year begins, many programs and services continue.

The first action for Sewickley Academy School Counselor Lynn Sanborne was to contact the school community. “I immediately let everyone know that I was available by phone or Zoom. I felt that it was the most important thing for them to know that I was here,” she said.

Sanborne also shared a wealth of resources with staff and parents. “It was especially important for parents as they had the most access to students at the time,” she said. “I gave them information on how to talk about COVID and how to assist their children in understanding and coping.”

She also shared resources with teachers including information on how to incorporate stress- and anxiety-reducing strategies such as mindfulness into the curriculum.

“I found that parents became much more observant about the emotional lives of their children. As they spent more time as a family, they became a lot more aware of their lives,” said Sanborne. “It wasn’t all a bad thing.”

Sewickley Academy went back to in-class studies in fall of 2020 for the most part, with extreme safety precautions in place—and new challenges. Despite some students choosing to remain remote, the overall school population became closer, Sanborne said.

“Kids really looked out for each other. If a student at home was having communication issues, they would text a friend and that friend would tell the teacher. The sense of helping was very important,” Sanborne said.

Moving forward with all students in the classroom for the 2021-22 academic year, Sewickley Academy added a learning specialist to the staff to assist with time management and study skills. "Anticipating a ‘normal’ year with academics and co-curriculars, we want to help students manage their own work-life balance," Sanborne explained.

According to Claudia Henry, director of personal counseling at Shady Side Academy, open communication was key as the pandemic took root.

“Shady Side’s president was transparent and intentional in communication to keep parents, students and our whole community as informed as possible,” Henry said. “At a time when everything seemed uncertain, established communication was very helpful.”

Henry worked with the rest of the counseling staff to provide resources to staff members, families and students so that everyone was better equipped to face unprecedented challenges. “We helped to inform families of problematic behavior and other issues they may face as we worked at reframing the way we were educating our students,” she explained. “They were on the front line and needed the coping skills.”

Though COVID made many things seem out of control, Henry urged students and parents to focus on the things that they could control. Having a counseling staff available 24/7 was also helpful—and remains an important resource—for families.

“Each student also has an advisor, so we have a system in place for ongoing personal communication in addition to the counseling staff,” Henry said.

Shady Side went back to in-person classes in the fall, with a focus on ongoing accessibility to staff and services. As the 2021-22 school year begins, Henry said research is suggesting that there will be another uptick in those seeking mental health assistance. With community providers already overwhelmed, in-school services will be more important than ever, so Shady Side is partnering with a provider to bolster their services for wellness resiliency.

“One favorable outcome from the pandemic is that mental health issues have become less stigmatized, so there is an opportunity to educate and skill build,” said Henry. “We want to equip our students with a tool belt for navigating challenges and focus on wellness.”

According to Timothy Mahoney, director of special education and pupil services at the Fox Chapel Area School District (FCASD), during the initial school closure, the district sought to implement programs that supported not only its students’ academic progress, but also social-emotional learning and behavioral needs, much like in a typical school year. The district began districtwide “PAWS” days once a week that allowed school counselors to promote social-emotional learning and mental well-being for all of their families.

“School counselors provided specific activities that allowed families to connect social-emotional learning to issues that they may be facing during the pandemic,” Mahoney explained. School counselors also held office hours to check in with and assist students if a higher level of support was needed.

Like other districts, FCASD increased its capacity to offer school-based mental health in the virtual environment. “This direct therapeutic service allowed students and families to receive private counseling services through the district’s contracted school-based mental health provider,” Mahoney said.

Most of the services have now become integral parts of the mental health services provided within the district. “The pandemic also opened the opportunity to increase the reach of safety nets within the district. School counselors have bolstered virtual resources; staff are meeting students across environments, and we are able to provide students and families with services that were not available prior to the pandemic closure due to dated regulations and practices,” Mahoney said.

During the 2020-21 school year, FCASD used various measurements to continue providing social-emotional learning lessons and individual social skill or counseling sessions while also increasing support from their social service liaisons, including preventive programs related to mental health and drug and alcohol use.

Moving into the upcoming school year, Mahoney said the district is working to refine services that support the whole child. This includes an evaluation of course offerings and how they provide academic support, as well as tiers of support for the mental health and behavioral needs within the district.

At Providence Heights Alpha School, school counselor Tricia Katyal shared resources with parents and offered Zoom meetings for students. “Alpha is a smaller school and there is a lot of support for students from all staff including our principal, so our students were well supported during that time,” she said.

To assist with the challenges from the pandemic and ongoing concerns, Katyal works with students in the classroom setting. “I teach the PATHS program—Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies,” she said, adding that PATHS’ evidence-based, cognitive behavioral lessons teach students techniques on how to manage uncomfortable feelings in and out of the classroom.

“When a student is able to manage their own feelings, it leads to clearer thinking and better problem-solving,” she said. Katyal will continue teaching and reinforcing PATHS and meet with students one-on-one as needed as the new school year begins.

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