By Stephanie Filio
In the shocking midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are left wondering what life might be like interacting with the rest of society from a distance. Health concerns aside, in our hyperconnected way of life, it is almost equally frightening to try to picture a world with reduced interaction and movement. In this, the education system is being rocked to its core, leading many to wonder if we have established an industry strong enough to instruct students from afar.
Though I’ve always known my division in Virginia Beach, Virginia, rocks, I have an even stronger appreciation for many of the processes that are provided to us for daily use already. As I plan ahead for the weeks to come, I am finding that the practices we use are proving to make a smoother transition in emergency situations. From one-to-one electronic devices to online classrooms using Schoology, our students are equipped to learn from home when necessary.
However well-equipped your division is to handle diverse and taxing situations, this crisis is undoubtedly going to transform how we all do things in education and help us see what works and what doesn’t—not only for now, but also for the future. We will be able to collect data on those divisions that can continue to serve their students from home and find out what academic methods are so tried and true that they can find success under any circumstances.
Evaluating the Situation
Following the Virginia governor’s call to close schools, my students will be home for a minimum of two weeks. The best part of a school counselor’s position is the face-to-face interaction with the students on our caseloads; we are there to respond to emotions and crises, putting out fires as they arise. Many of my colleagues have been asking how we will do our job remotely without physical students for an extended period of time.
The typical day of a school counselor includes meetings, requests for schedule changes, and student interactions. I worry about my students who are suffering from mental health difficulties, specifically as many of them have reduced access to the triage mental health support we provide in schools. I worry about my students who are making strides with academics and attendance and may now fall considerably behind without the support of their cheerleaders and instructors. I worry about my students who rely on mentorship within the schools to remain cool and calm in the face of heightened emotions. I worry about my students who need food, consistent shelter, and the safety of time away from home.
At the end of the day, I am trying to continually remind myself that this is new for everyone. In the days following the announcement of the school closures, our school and senior leadership were still organizing a plan of action for reaching students. We are all called upon. Because of how the educator’s mind works, we are all putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to be perfect and find no gaps in learning through it all. This is not only impossible, it may also be creating severe anxiety in a population of professionals that base much of their life’s purpose on serving others. We are all going to try our best, but we have no control over the situation, and no one really knows what will be effective in such a crisis.
To begin my own personal look into what I imagine I can do from home, I have decided to begin by reevaluating how I spend my time in my comprehensive office on a normal day. In doing so, I am hoping I will be able to translate typical duties of responding to concerns of students, parents, and staff into digital action. Though the order of frequency might change from day to day, reoccurring tasks I see in my daily ledger include student check-ins, student visits, conferences with parents and/or students, consulting with teachers, 504 meetings and prep, student crisis consultations, parent phone calls, schedule changes, discipline meetings, and mediations.
Making a Plan and Setting Goals
Based on my evaluation, I know I can alter some daily tasks to achieve from home or the office—without students in front of me. From this list, I can set some attainable goals and tasks for myself to create a daily plan for the next two or more weeks. Everyone’s list will look different, depending on what specific needs are in your division. My list is:
Section 504 updating. I have about six 504s left for the year. Once I identify who is not in an eligibility year, I can reach out to parents to evaluate and discuss accommodations and updates. For those in eligibility, I can prep the materials and reach out to parents for tentative dates, or possibly hold digital consultations with the team.
Check in with frequent-flier students. Using my day planner and focus group, I will identify students that might need a check-in. This might include a simple “How are you?” or might be a time to supply some resources that can be accessed at home. There are also some reminders for students with individualized therapeutic plans that I can send so that the student will remember to apply these strategies at home too.
Touch base with parents who have scheduled parent-teacher conferences. I have several parent-teacher conferences in the next couple weeks that will need to be rescheduled. As we wait to find out how the quarter will be adjusted, I don’t want my students to find themselves in a “too little, too late” situation. I will reach out to each parent who scheduled a conference and include all the student’s teachers in an email. I can then ask all teachers to “reply all” (to include the parent) to give a specific plan of action for makeup work the student can do in conjunction with the current work being assigned online.
Identify academically underachieving students. I plan on going through my caseload and pausing to evaluate students who are struggling with their grades. Once I look through students’ coursework, I can email parents and ask that they look at their parent apps to ensure their children complete any makeup work while at home. This is my go-to during extended snow closures. Students return to school saying, “Mrs. Filio! I can’t believe you emailed my mom! She grounded me the whole second week!” . . . which is all the data I need to keep it up!
Provide SEL lessons. By using resources online and creating digital lessons, we can provide our students with some recommendations for how to remain healthy at home. There is no doubt that the imagery, fear, and eerily sterile environment are creating anxiety and stress in the lives of our young people. They badly need lessons on mindfulness, reasoning, and self-care. There are many mini lessons that parents can lead at home if they are home from work. Here are a few places to start:
- 9 Real-Life Dilemmas to Get Kids Thinking About Choices
- Why Character Education Is Important for Young Children
- SMART Goals for Social Emotional Learning
- Help Students Develop Mini-Habits for Social Emotional Learning
Remain available. This is obviously the most important thing you can do and requires a small subset of goals. I have access to students through our online application, but I also plan to remain vigilant through email to respond to students, parents, and staff. Ways I hope to be able to serve include:
- Ensuring emails are answered quickly and communication chains with group emails are created through Outlook or our school’s main application for online learning.
- Reminding parents that students know more about electronics than we do, and that students have been well trained in class for online classroom and application use. In short, “Don’t believe your child when they say they don’t know how to do it.” Would you believe that my own eighth grader tries this on me at home?!
- Being a liaison between families and teachers when a parent shows concern about computer or internet accessibility at home. If a parent contacts me to let me know they do not have a computer, but they do have a smartphone, I can reach out to our computer specialist or the student’s teacher to help provide a workaround.
- Providing teachers with any support they might need to check in with idle parents and students.
- Documenting all parent communication on our student information system so that when I return to school, the worlds between this crazy time and getting back to school can be bridged.
Returning to School
Returning to school is going to be the game changer. To be honest, I am anxious just thinking about how it will feel, mainly because this situation is so different from anything we’ve ever experienced. The unknown is overwhelming. In order to rest my own worries, I plan on spending a large part of the next two weeks planning for what I can do in the days and weeks after we return to school. I want to help students quickly feel security and safety in our hallways.
This has been my mental process for planning ahead in the face of the great unknown. It will no doubt change as time moves on. The best thing we can do as a community is share with each other our strategies so that we can have one big professional brainstorm! As always in the educational world, we are truly all in this together . . . even if from our homes.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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