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School Counselors and COVID-19

A new report offers insight into the pandemic experiences of counselors — and how to best position counselors to support students this year
Counselors Enter

As licensed professionals trained to support students’ emotional and academic wellbeing, school counselors are perhaps best positioned to help grapple with the pandemic. Yet counselors, too, have faced significant pandemic-related barriers in delivering the necessary supports and services to students.

In a new report, Harvard Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer and her coauthors, Boston College associate professor Heather Rowan-Kenyon and researchers Tara Nicola, Stephanie Carroll, and Laura Hecht, take one of the first looks at the impact of the pandemic on school counselors. The researchers explored how counselors are adapting to meet student needs, where the challenges are, and how schools, districts, and states can support and provide resources to reinforce counselors’ work.

Findings from their survey of 948 school counselors suggest that, during the pandemic:

  • Counselors were not able to spend as much time as usual working directly with students on social-emotional issues, post-secondary planning, and career development. Counselors reported that they often filled logistical or administrative needs and that, while critical, this infringed on their ability to connect with students.
  • Counselors reported that they often lacked clear direction from school and district leadership.
  • Counselors reported that they were rarely involved in COVID-19 school planning.

Though survey responses underscored the tireless work school counselors and leaders did to continue to support students after the shift to remote learning, counselors also reported feeling as though they lacked structure and direction from leadership to provide personalized support to students.

“School counselors have long endured less than ideal working conditions, such as high caseloads, non-counseling responsibilities, and limited time with students. However, these challenges were intensified during remote schooling, which is alarming given that counselors’ unique expertise in mental health and counseling is more critical than ever,” said Savitz-Romer.

Savitz-Romer and her coauthors offer guidance to leadership for articulating a vision for counseling, protecting counseling time, and providing access to resources to better support student wellbeing.

“School leaders need to think about how counselor time is structured and be intentional about building in time for students to meet with counselors and for counselors to provide supports to whole classes, grades, or schools,” said Rowan-Kenyon.

As schools continue to experience pandemic-related disruptions, the report offers a series of recommendations for maintaining a commitment to student wellness and postsecondary readiness.

Articulate a vision for counseling and define expectations with input from the counseling staff

  • Integrate counseling supports. Let counselors join morning meetings to connect with students.
  • Spread out logistical duties like tracking down absent students across school staff or, if the resources are available, hire additional staff.

Prioritize counselors' time with students and take flexible and creative approaches as needed

  • Be intentional about scheduling. Give students (and families) an advisory period as a chance to connect. This may require flexibility and may need to take place outside of school hours to accommodate the needs of students and their caregivers.

Ensure counselors have access to resources and supports to adapt to supporting students in this new environment

  • Consider the need for privacy in virtual counseling sessions. Counselors may need to connect with students in a safe meeting space or use a tele-counseling platform.
  • Offer trainings and supports that meet the specific needs of counselors. As the pandemic has increased trauma, grief, and isolation, counselors may need explicit training in these areas.

The research team expands on ways leadership can deploy resources and counseling staff to help mitigate trauma in a recently released Education Week article.

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