With Schools Shut Down, Counselors Struggle to Help Students From a Distance

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With classrooms empty, school counselors are doing their best to keep in touch with students who may need them now more than ever.
During normal times, when schools aren't shut down, Patricia Tamayo's office is just off a busy hallway at O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth.

It could get noisy, said Tamayo, the school's junior class counselor, but the location helped her build relationships with students. She could stand in the hallway before school and greet students as they got to school. Between classes, she could step out and talk to them as they passed by. For some students, especially the quiet ones, she knew those conversations could be the only positive interactions they had with an adult all day.

The students, too, knew they could drop by anytime to get help with class schedules, college admissions paperwork or any emotional issues they were having. She had students who would take the long route to their next class just so they could say hello.

"The kids are walking by every day, all the time," she said. "They had that instant access."

Now, that access is considerably harder to arrange, both for Tamayo and her students. Tamayo is doing everything she can to try to stay in touch, she said. She's set up a Google Voice number that she gives out for students and parents to call or text when they need to talk. She created an Instagram account, which she uses to send out information and reminders about college application paperwork and entrance exams.

But still, Tamayo worries the shutdown is affecting her students in ways she can't see. Many of the students at O.D. Wyatt come from families that were struggling even before the pandemic hit. That means many of her students had trauma in their backgrounds already. Others have seen college plans or other dreams for the future upended. Tamayo tries to make sure her students know she's just a phone call or text message away. But even though she's working longer and harder than she ever has, she worries it isn't enough.

School counselors play two separate roles in students' lives. They're academic guides who manage students' class schedules and help them navigate college entrance exams, applications and financial aid paperwork. They also act as advocates for students' social and emotional well-being, a friendly ear for students who need to talk and, usually, schools' only mental health professionals.

As students across North Texas feel the physical, economic and psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, school counselors' roles as mental health workers have taken on added importance. But as schools have shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, counselors have struggled to find ways to fulfill that role when they can't meet with their students face to face.

"The students are missing that daily hug that they get from the teachers, or the high five, or the pat on the back. There's definitely some grief going along with this situation." – Christina Dumbauld, J.T. Stevens Elementary School

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In-person visits to counselors' offices are being replaced with FaceTime calls, Zoom meetings and Facebook messages. But counselors worry those virtual visits, though they're the best option available right now, aren't a good replacement.

"It's not the same," said Caremina Passmore-Anderson, a counselor at Lida Hooe Elementary School in Oak Cliff. "It's totally different."

During the shutdown, Passmore-Anderson has tried to find ways to be there for her students and their parents as much as possible. She set up a Facebook page to help keep in touch and a Google Voice number that she encourages students and parents to call anytime they need her. She holds Zoom meetings every Thursday morning and uses FaceTime and Facebook Messenger to talk to kids who need more one-on-one attention.

While those options are the best ones she has available right now, they aren't a good substitute in-person conversations, Passmore-Anderson said. Before the shutdown, students who came into her office to talk knew their conversation was confidential. They were alone in a room with her, so they knew no one else could overhear them. Now, when she talks to a student on FaceTime, they're usually in a room with parents and siblings.

There's also something lost when she can't be physically present with students, she said. When students visit her in her office to talk, she can give hugs or pats on the back. If they're crying, just having her in the same room helps. A conversation on FaceTime can help, she said, but not as much as face-to-face contact.

Many students have felt the effects of the pandemic firsthand. Some have had relatives get sick or even die of the disease, Passmore-Anderson said. Others have had their parents take pay cuts or lose their jobs during the shutdowns. A few of her students have had to be tested for COVID-19 after they came in contact with someone who was exposed.

Even for students who haven't felt firsthand effects, the sudden and almost total disruption of daily routines brought on by the pandemic is upsetting, Passmore-Anderson said. Some kids are worried about having enough food. Others are upset that they can't visit their grandparents.

"Their whole life has totally changed overnight," she said.

There are some things that can't be replaced by Google classrooms and Zoom meetings, said Christina Dumbauld, a counselor at J.T. Stevens Elementary School in Fort Worth. Especially for elementary school counselors, just being able to see kids' faces as they walk into school in the morning is important, Dumbauld said. Seeing students in person gives her a chance to gauge how they're feeling and figure out who she needs to check in with that day.

Counselors, like teachers, are grieving the lost connections with their students, and students seem to feel the same way, Dumbauld said. The thing many of her students seem to miss most is the one thing they can't have right now: the physical presence of teachers, principals, counselors and friends at school.

"The students are missing that daily hug that they get from the teachers, or the high five, or the pat on the back," she said. "There's definitely some grief going along with this situation."

Since the beginning of the shutdown, Dumbauld has also been trying to help the teachers at her school cope with the added stress the situation is bringing to what was already a stressful job. She emails out wellness tips and activities and strategies to help them calm themselves when they start to feel overwhelmed. The goal is to help teachers take care of themselves so they can take care of their students, she said.

When students and teachers come back to school and life returns to something like normalcy, school districts will need to make sure counseling resources are available for students, parents and teachers. By the end of the pandemic, many students will have had a family member affected. Some will have been affected themselves. And the long-term stress the pandemic has brought to most people's lives can also be a source of trauma, she said.

Right now, Dumbauld is just doing her best with what she has available to her. She's relying more heavily on teachers to let her know when she needs to check in with a student. And like teachers, she's relying on virtual tools to make those check-ins. They may not be as personal as a face-to-face visit, she said. But right now, they're the only option.

"It's what we've got right now," she said. "We have to make do and adapt."