By Jill Penley
When COVID-19 began sweeping the nation in the spring, state education officials and school administrators were faced with the difficult decision of whether to remain in the classroom, or close schools as a possible way to curtail the spread of the virus. According to Education Week, 48 states; four U.S. territories; Washington, D.C.; and the Department of Defense Education Activity recommended school closures affecting at least 50.8 million public school students.
“This Pandemic and this semester has forced us to look at things differently,” said Dr. Mischelle Simcox, Director of Schools. “More and more students across America are struggling with added stress from today’s current situations.”
As licensed professionals trained to support students’ emotional and academic wellbeing, school counselors have a unique role to fill while schools are shut down due to COVID-19. Yet counselors, too, have faced significant pandemic-related barriers in providing the necessary supports and services to students. Like teachers, many are still adjusting to the ‘new normal’ and try to determine the best way to help students. Because so much of what counselors do revolves around face-to-face contact, making the transition to this new virtual climate is uncharted territory.
“Mental Health isn’t something most people like to talk about,” said Simcox, “but it is important to encourage an open dialogue about mental health. Mental health challenges are common and often start to affect people when they are teens or during their young adult years.”
The availability of school counselors was stressed at the recent meeting of the Johnson County Board of Education.
“Our counselors are still available to our students,” said Edna Miller, Attendance Supervisor. “Just because a student is virtual does not mean the counselors are not available.” Miller also indicated counselors are being asked to reach out to specific students when an issue arises. “Parents can also call counselors and set up a Zoom call or other conference.”
Board member Gary Matheson, who seemed particularly concerned about the mental health of students, particularly due to non-socialization and the recent reports of student suicide, inquired as to whether the teachers are monitoring students with regards to onset of depression, etc. Miller indicated it would be nearly impossible for a teacher in a virtual setting to detect signs of depression, but that it would be “more on the parent,” and she also reported many virtual students are still participating in extracurricular activities and tutoring in the afternoon as they are more comfortable, as far as the virus goes with a lower number of people present, allowing interaction with teachers, coaches and other students, who would possibly notice a change in demeanor and report any concerns.
“As part of Johnson County Schools’ commitment to our students and employees we have our school counselors as well as a mental health clinician available and ready to help,” reiterated Dr. Simcox. “As a way to help students connect with these resources, we have added a Mental Health section to the Johnson County Schools’ Mobile app. This link will allow students to submit a request for a school counselor to privately reach out to them.”