For millions of students and school counselors across the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy.
“We’re in this historic moment where a world pandemic, racial tensions – and a momentum for racial equity and justice, action, and change and the polarized political situation – coalesce into a perfect storm of human stress,” said Joseph G. Ponterotto, Ph.D., a professor of counseling psychology at Fordham.
Ponterotto and his colleagues in the Graduate School of Education described in phone interviews the struggles that students and school counselors across New York City have experienced throughout the pandemic and how they can be better prepared when schools reopen this fall.
Losing a ‘Safe Haven’
School was once a “safe haven”—a place where some students could escape their unstable family lives, said school counselors. But when schools closed across New York City in March, students faced their struggles all the time. Some lost loved ones to COVID-19. And school counselors said that if students confided in them by phone or Zoom, it was difficult to offer comfort.
“You can’t offer that hug. You can’t give them that in a virtual platform,” said Michelle Santana, FCRH ’10, GSE ’17, assistant director of the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) for middle and high schoolers at the Rose Hill campus and a school counselor by training. “That was definitely challenging—finding ways to help with those little things that mean so much.”
But there are creative ways to come together, said Santana. This past spring, she hosted a virtual lounge where students could stop by—the same way they used to in her office at Rose Hill—to maintain a sense of community.
In a school south of the Bronx, middle school students struggled with similar issues, said another school counselor. Some experienced isolation, especially those who didn’t have many close friends before the pandemic. Others slipped into unhealthy habits—sleeping into the afternoon and staying up late at night. When COVID-19 cases steadily decreased, students who were trapped in their apartments for months were allowed more freedom. But many chose to stay inside.
“Something new that we’ve seen are kids who don’t know how to re-enter [society],” said Seth Kritzman, GSE ’12, a school counselor at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School and an adjunct instructor at Fordham. “Parents say they just don’t want to. Students are kind of in this shell.”
Virtual counseling sessions can be tough, too, because of a lack of privacy. After a video chat, some students type messages to Kritzman that their families can’t hear. Kritzman said he’s trying to support his students by listening and offering coping mechanisms. But he says he’s worried about how to meet the needs of all students—and their families.
“The whole family could be in crisis. Middle school stuff can be traumatic, but this is a whole other realm and not necessarily something we’re trained for as school counselors,” said Kritzman. “Because of the pandemic, everything that’s happening can be tied to school. Where do you draw the line? What is the role of school counselor versus when do you get outside help?”
Juggling Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Racism
The pandemic is one layer of stress for students. The other, counselors and faculty said, is the death of George Floyd and the ensuing national protests against police brutality and racial injustice over the past few months.
“Students of color, particularly Black and Latinx … are also having to cope with how to process what they see on their screens and things that they themselves have experienced,” said Kip Thompson, Ph.D., clinical coordinator and assistant professor of counseling psychology.
To draw strength, Black adolescents and young adults should get in touch with “their higher power,” nurture family relationships, and pursue what brings them joy, said Thompson, whose research interests include Black American college student mental health.
“It’s really important that in these challenging, uncertain times, the young Black person really taps into what brings them power, joy, and inspiration,” Thompson said.
Meanwhile, school counselors should reflect on their own identities to better serve their students, said Ponterotto.
“[We need to] understand stages of racial identity, of what power and privilege is, and how to develop a nonracist identity as a white teacher or counselor,” said Ponterotto. “It’s white men in power, the heterosexual population, and the Christian population taking responsibility for their own history of oppressing others that we all have been guilty of, given the environment we were raised in, and deconstructing our own identity to help us be effective teachers and counselors for others.”
Advice on Remote Counseling from GSE Faculty
After reflecting on personal experiences with clients throughout the pandemic, GSE faculty shared tips on how to improve remote counseling and support for students of all ages.
Play therapy is possible if you think outside the box. Elementary school students and counselors can play a game of charades during each counseling session. On Zoom, they can use the whiteboard feature to play Pictionary or hangman. They can even play a game of Battleship or bingo, as long as they both have the hard materials in front of them. Or they can conduct a scavenger hunt around a student’s room to help the student practice emotional self-expression and self-awareness, said Alea Holman, Ph.D., assistant professor of school psychology.
Privacy is key. It’s important to utilize HIPAA-compliant platforms in a quiet, safe space to help ensure confidentiality with a client. If a student is living in a home where they can’t speak comfortably about certain topics—an LGBTQ student living in a non-affirmative environment, for example—they can communicate via email or chat, said Eric C. Chen, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology.
Counseling on an online platform can be surprisingly effective. “Some people told me that they feel more comfortable expressing themselves with a remote format because it removes a layer of self-consciousness and exposure in the interaction,” said Holman. A phone call can also strip away a layer of self-consciousness from students who don’t want to see their faces on screen, she said.
Parents can play a crucial role. “One thing I suggest to my school counselors is to have Zoom meetings with parents to demonstrate to them … how the school counselor talks to the kids about uncertainty, confusion, and giving voice to feelings,” said Ponterotto. “We have to be able to process kids’ fears.”
Self-care is critical for counselors. It seems like a selfish thought, said Margo A. Jackson, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology. But consider this analogy: If you’re on a plane and the oxygen masks drop, you have to put yours on before you can help your child or whoever is next to you, she said. “When [counselors]are stretched to the limit … then we cannot be of help to others,” Jackson explained. “In fact, we could do harm.”
Be compassionate to yourself and others. Resilience is a “muscle” that requires daily exercise. “Count your blessings. Reward yourself with simple daily pleasures, such as reading a poem, having a bike ride, watching clouds float by, that you enjoy in life. Recognize your strengths and think about a few individuals who have made a difference in your life over the years or those who have nurtured and supported you in the past,” said Chen. “And imagine what your future will be like a year from now—picture how you will remember that you have survived and thrived during those moments of darkness and anguish.”