‘You worry about them’: Outnumbered school counselors struggle to keep kids safe remotely

As educators everywhere try to figure out how to do their jobs remotely, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted another problem facing schools across the country: the instability of relying on one counselor, or just a few, to guide hundreds of students through new academic hurdles, prepare them for an uncertain future, and triage their mental health crises.

Even as the ratio of students to counselors declines nationally, many states remain well above the 250-to-1 recommended by the American School Counselor Association. And counselors around the country have scrambled to find answers to questions about how to ethically and logistically approach the new virtual reality of their work.

In late March, as states rushed to close schools, the ASCA tried to host a pair of webinars to answer those questions. But after 13,000 members registered for the sessions – and quickly crashed the servers – the ASCA stopped offering live webinars, said Jill Cook, a former school counselor who is assistant director with the organization.

“Folks all over the country, not just in rural states, they’re just searching for help and support,” Cook said. “School districts have a lot on their plates so (counselors) haven’t really gotten directives about what their role should look like.”

A scarcity of counselors, especially in elementary schools, puts students in some regions at particular risk.

Induja Kumar (center) joins her fellow student organizers with March for Our Lives Arizona during a lobbying day on Jan. 27, 2020, at the Arizona Legislature. The students pushed for a bill to provide more mental health support in school.

For example, the Arizona Department of Child Safety has seen the number of calls to its child abuse hotline fall by a quarter since mid-March – a reminder that students in vulnerable situations at home are isolated from the adults on campus, who keep careful watch for signs of abuse and neglect. 

Just before this crisis began, Arizona — which currently has the highest student-to-counselor ratio in the nation at 905-to-1 — was poised to spend millions more on boosting its thin roster of counselors. But as the coronavirus freezes Arizona’s economy, securing that money seems much less certain.

Without it, what little mental health support schools can offer students may fray further in the coming months.

“For students who were already suffering, and maybe only had one counselor at school, that was their one outlet to go to,” said Induja Kumar, 17, a senior at BASIS Chandler charter school in Chandler, Arizona. She helped organize a student lobbying effort for more school counselors in her state. “Something that was already bad before the pandemic is only getting worse now.”

It’s a familiar scenario for youth struggling with mental health issues across the U.S. National data suggest there’s a rising need for mental health support for adolescents, with teen suicide on the rise nationally, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

At least 17% of high schoolers nationwide had “seriously considered” attempting suicide and 14% reported they had made a suicide plan in the past year, according to the results of the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the CDC.

Nearly a third of high school students surveyed reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to the CDC.

The pandemic, and efforts to contain it, likely will exacerbate all this, according to new research: In a survey of more than 2,300 students in Wuhan, China — where the novel coronavirus emerged and where students on average had been restricted to home for a little more than a month — 23% of students reported depressive symptoms. About 19% reported anxiety.

Filling in the gaps

While some parents turn to private counseling and professional therapists for help, many do not have the means to provide that one-on-one support for their children. Also, some families have a cultural distrust of therapy or lack the time to take advantage of it. 

Students often knock on counselors’ doors for help with their personal crises. 

Janine Menard works as a counselor at Sheely Farms Elementary, which enrolls about 750 students from pre-K through eighth grade in Tolleson.

While Menard tries to teach all students how to manage their emotions and helps some in small groups, she often refers kids with more difficult issues to free therapy provided on campus by a local mental health agency.

Still, some parents don’t let their kids participate in the therapy or forget to take advantage of it.

Janine Menard, a counselor at Sheely Farms Elementary School in Tolleson, meets virtually with a co-worker on May 1.

And when students don’t get treatment outside of school, “all of that falls back onto the school counselor,” Menard said. “So maybe you have a kid diagnosed — or undiagnosed — with depression or anxiety, and it goes untreated. Then that’s something I have to do my best with.”

It wasn’t until the ASCA adopted a national model in 2003 that mental health gained an official role in school counseling duties. Since then, there’s been a lot of debate on how much time to devote to mental health versus academic achievement versus college and career planning.

But every counselor interviewed for this story said social-emotional responsibilities have been taking up more and more of their time at work for the past 10 to 20 years.

Shiloh Wheeler, a counselor with the Thatcher Unified School District in rural Arizona, works outside her home on April 27. Until this school year, Wheeler was the only counselor for all 1,750 students in her district.

Adjusting to remote assistance

Even before the closures, Shiloh Wheeler faced an impossible job: For 10 years, she was the only school counselor for all 1,750 students in the Thatcher Unified School District near the state’s eastern border with New Mexico. This school year, her district was able to hire one additional counselor, but both are still overloaded.

The district operates four schools in a rural town of about 5,000 people. Wheeler, chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association, said her primary focus was the high school.

“But then I would (handle) crises on call for the other schools,” she said. “My job was mostly reactive.”

In recent years, Wheeler has encountered more students struggling with anxiety and depression or self-harming behaviors.

Now that she can’t see her students in person, she sends surveys to every high schooler by email, asking them to rank their state of mind that day.

Wheeler acknowledged that tactic may not catch every student in need.

While schools were in session, she often relied on classmates – “probably once a week” – to alert her about friends who seemed to be hurting themselves or contemplating suicide. Now, those friends can’t see each other.

“If something’s happening at home, there’s no escape,” Wheeler said. “There’s kids that you worry about because school was their safe place. You worry about them being home alone.”

She, and every other counselor interviewed for this story, also noted the role teachers and counselors play as mandated reporters – professionals required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect. In 2018, educators submitted one-fifth of all reports alleging child maltreatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

And while child welfare agencies typically see reports dip whenever schools close for a break, they also see a surge when classes resume – suggesting not that child abuse isn’t happening during the closures, but that it isn’t being spotted.

“That means children are suffering in silence,” said Darren DaRonco, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

Similar trends have appeared in other states. In Oregon, reports to the state’s child abuse hotline dropped by 70% in the month after schools closed due to the coronavirus. That’s a more immediate and pronounced decline than agency officials would expect over regular school breaks, said Jake Sunderland, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“This is so much more alarming than what we see during summer, mainly because kids aren’t just away from their mandatory reporters” in school, Sunderland said. “As social isolation sets in, kids have significantly (fewer) eyes on them. They’re not visiting grandma or their cousins. They’re not going to sports practice or the swim center.”

And though abuse is among the most dangerous problems, it is far from the only one school counselors help students cope with. Issues including trouble with friends, confusion about romantic relationships and the unexpected death of a close relative all fall under a counselor’s purview. Dealing with the death of a loved one has become more common due to COVID-19.

Megan Bledsoe, a counselor at Discovery Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, records a video for students about how to stay physically active from her home in Portland, Oregon.

Navigating digital privacy issues

As counselors try to find a way to connect with students in a virtual setting, some also must navigate bureaucratic fears of invading student privacy.

Not all districts have embraced the use of online video platforms for school counseling, and labor contracts or district policies can prohibit counselors from calling students using their personal phones.

But in Vancouver, Washington, where Megan Bledsoe was recently named the state counselor of the year, she turned to YouTube as a way to reach more students from Discovery Middle School, where she works.

One video she uploaded simply shows her walking around the Portland, Oregon, neighborhood where she lives, to remind students of the importance of exercise when they feel cooped up at home. Another features her cat, Pele, sharing tips on how to build a schedule and stay busy.

“Although it is a great look for me to spend 12 hours napping and 12 hours lounging, it is not a good look for a teenager,” Pele “says” in the video. “So make sure that you are getting up, moving, using your brain – all that good stuff. Don’t be like me.”

In this screenshot from Megan Bledsoe's YouTube channel, the Discovery Middle School counselor shares lessons with students about the importance of exercise, keeping a schedule and processing grief.

Helping the youngest students

For their part, no counselors interviewed for this story said the job felt insurmountable in this moment. In some districts, laptops and devices sent home with students have software that tracks keywords and alerts staff before students harm themselves or someone else.

Across Arizona, counselors expressed hope that the relationships they have tried to build in person will make it easier for students to ask for help from afar.

But all — no matter the grade level they served — stressed their concern for elementary students, who are often too young to have their own cell phones or email accounts.

The digital divide raised similar concerns: If no phone numbers work for a family, if emails remain unanswered, how can counselors gauge the welfare of a child?

“It’s tough. There are definitely counselors losing sleep over if their kids are OK,” said Amanda Nolasco, the school counselor specialist for the Arizona Department of Education. “I think — I hope — the general public is really starting to see how school really is the center of a lot of communities.”

How to get help

Child Abuse Hotline: If you are concerned that a child you know is being abused, you can call or text the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. If you live in Arizona, you can also reach out to state officials directly by calling 1-888-767-2445.

Suicide Hotline: If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, you can get help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

This story about school counseling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter

Leave a Reply