For millions of students and school counselors across the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic—combined with the stresses of systemic racism felt by students of color—has created increased stressors and challenges.
“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, while describing the struggles that students and school counselors have experienced throughout the pandemic, also provide guidance on how to meet those challenges as schools move forward through this academic year and beyond.
Losing a ‘Safe Haven’
School was once a “safe haven”—a place where some students could escape their unstable family lives. But when schools closed across New York City in March, students faced their out-of-school 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 Fordham’s 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, Santana said. 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.
At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, students struggled with similar issues, said Seth Kritzman, GSE ’12, a school counselor there and an adjunct instructor at Fordham. 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 Kritzman. “Parents say they just don’t want to. Students are kind of in this shell.”
Counselors say that virtual 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?”
Angie Sjoquist, Ph.D., GSE clinical assistant professor and the director of Fordham’s Hagin School Consultation Center, hopes to fill in some of the gaps. She is firmly focused on ways to adapt and expand the center’s services under her leadership. The center is slated to add telehealth services this fall to complement the on-site services that will now be delivered while observing carefully considered precautions. Sjoquist explains, “As complicated as these changes [to services] may be, we hope to meet an urgent need in the community for continued psychological services.”
For example, she expects to help meet many of the needs of students that had evaluations delayed due to closures during the current crisis—or of individuals who need consultation and ongoing support for social-emotional issues—through adding telehealth services at the center. She is making immediate plans to expand services by providing early childhood assessment services, diagnostic assessment of autism spectrum disorders, and individual counseling services for children, adolescents, and young adults.
Sjoquist specifically notes that for the early childhood population, research suggests earlier and more intensive support can be linked to improvement in developmental outcomes and school readiness. She says the Hagin Center’s services will provide families with early identification of developmental concerns and corresponding support services that can lead to significant progress for young children, especially amidst the current pandemic.
Juggling Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Racism
The pandemic is one layer of stress for students. Another, counselors and faculty said, is the death of George Floyd and the ensuing national protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
“Students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students … 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 at Fordham GSE.
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 students’ 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. Chen just received the distinguished Presidential Award from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy (Division 49) for his outstanding contributions and exceptional service to the field. Division 49 promotes the advancement of the field of group psychology and the modality of group psychotherapy through research, education, and clinical practice.
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.”