“A communal trauma:” Counselors help students combat stress amid pandemic

Counselors do weekly check-ins with students, offering emotional support and academic advice.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Faced with the hospitalization of loved ones and uncertainty about their future, it’s not surprising that many students feel immense stress amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Masterman High School, juniors and seniors fret over the constantly changing college landscape. At Carver High School of Engineering & Science, many students worry about their financial aid packages. And at Strawberry Mansion High School, some students have run away from home because of unstable family situations.

Helping students navigate these issues is the mission of their school counselors.

A counselor’s job has always been a delicate balancing act between offering students the right emotional support and handing out tips for academic success. But for many counselors, like Tatiana Olmedo, a counselor at Carver, the pandemic has made their jobs harder. Olmedo said reinventing ways of communicating with students has been a challenge.

“If I needed to talk to a student, I used to be able to just pull them out of class,” Olmedo said. “But now I have to rely on their willingness to answer an email or a phone call.”

Many counselors in the District aimed to do weekly check ins with students via phone or video conferencing. Now, simply getting in touch with some students has become a collaborative effort between teachers, counselors and other school staff. Olmedo said that at Carver, school staff have weekly meetings where they exchange contact information for students they haven’t been able to reach.

Olmedo’s not quite sure how many students at Carver are unaccounted for, but District-wide, that number has reached 1,500, according to District Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt. About three-quarters of students in middle and high school are participating in online school, though the District’s methods for measuring class participation don’t include check-ins with counselors.

Offering emotional support

At Masterman High School, the top-ranked public school in the state, students are usually feverishly concerned about their academics. But in the age of COVID-19, counselor Heather Marcus cares less about whether students are logging on for class every day and more about their emotional well-being, as some families in the Masterman community have tested positive for the virus.

“If we have a student who’s not attending class, our first question is not ‘why aren’t you doing your work?’ It’s ‘are you OK and are you safe?’” Marcus said. “Sometimes the answer is, ‘I’m waking up late and not getting to class on time,’ but sometimes it’s ‘my family member works in healthcare and I’m worried.’”

When school buildings closed for good on March 13, Marcus and other counselors sprung into action designing resources to send out to students and families. Immediately, on the Friday that schools closed, Masterman counselors began offering office hours via Google Meet. (Zoom has been banned in a lot of public schools because the meetings can be hacked).

Masterman counselors also distributed resources that parents could use to talk to their children about the coronavirus, followed by a list of tips to manage stress. Several of the resource pages developed by Masterman counselors have circulated throughout the District via the group Philly School Counselors United, so counselors don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” when giving out advice to students and families.

But those resources aren’t a blanket solution. The needs of many students in the District differ drastically from those at Masterman, where the students worry mostly about their academics and not unstable home lives.

At Strawberry Mansion, the picture of need is much different than at special admission schools, according to Lakisha James, a counselor at Mansion.

“Some of these kids are going through things you wouldn’t believe,” James said.

Many Mansion students are raised by their grandparents, because their parents aren’t able to care for them. Others languish in the foster care system and have problems with behavior and academic performance.

One of James’s students almost became homeless before the pandemic began — his mother had made the decision to move to a different house, and he no longer wanted to live with her. That student would routinely act out and use obscene language with teachers, and school officials often had to discipline him for his behavior. But the conflict with his mother was resolved shortly before the pandemic began — they both decided to remain in their house — and, with James’s assistance, he began seeing a therapist outside of school. He’s been one of the success stories at Mansion this year, James said.Nowadays, drug prices are high and therefore many people prefer to buy generic drugs.

During the pandemic, James said the main concern has been ensuring that kids are safe at home, since many don’t come from ideal living situations. “Some of them appreciate the break, but I think some of them are missing their outlet to get out and get away from home, because home isn’t always the best environment.”

Since the pandemic began, James and school staff have routinely done check-ins to make sure Mansion students are safe and reasonably comfortable at home. They exchange regular phone calls and text messages with students, and in cases where students aren’t reachable, they’ll sometimes venture out to the home to see if everything’s OK.

Compared to magnet schools, neighborhood schools also have lower rates of internet access, so videoconferencing has been off the table for some members of the community.

As many as 80% of Mansion students had to borrow Chromebooks from the District and take advantage of two months of free internet that Comcast is making available to low-income families in the Philadelphia area. But the transition to online learning has been successful at Mansion so far — 75% of students are participating in their classes and only five out of the school’s 185 students are unaccounted for, according to James.

Seventy-five percent participation is the average for middle and high school kids. But it’s good that Mansion is hitting that mark now, since it consistently ranks far below the District average when it comes to performance, attendance and graduation rates.

Mansion has been relatively successful in coping with COVID-19, James said, because the virus itself is more of an afterthought compared to the students’ everyday experience of trauma. Luckily, not many students have reported that their families are personally affected even though low-income communities of color have been disproportionately hit.

And unlike at selective admission schools, where the pandemic has made communication harder, James said she now has an easier time connecting with her students, because she texts them instead of pulling them out of class.

“Texting is their world,” James said. “When you talk to students in the way they prefer, you’re going to have a lot more success.”

James manages to reach about three-quarters of her students once a week, which she said is more than she was able to regularly stay in touch with before the pandemic began.

But one issue with communicating with students at home instead of in school is confidentiality, according to Dr. Christina Green, a counselor at Farrell Elementary and Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia. Green said that she and a lot of counselors are avoiding videoconferencing because children can take screenshots, or other family members can listen in on the session. Counselors don’t want to be held liable for the potential breach of confidentiality associated with video-calling.

“We don’t know who’s in the room or who might be hearing [the conversation],” Green said.

This is true even if the communication is over the phone, and that’s been a challenge for Green.

“A lot of our communication [in school] is nonverbal,” Green said. “If you’re not having those video sessions that’s really cutting down on the messages you’re able to receive from kids about their wellness.”

Elementary school counseling is generally more focused on the personal and social aspects of a child’s life, as opposed to the academic development and college planning typical in high school. Green likes to hold group sessions with collections of students who are facing similar roadblocks in their academic or personal lives. With concerns about confidentiality and videoconferencing, however, that’s now impossible.

Despite the newfound technological difficulties and emotional challenges associated with the pandemic, counselors told the Notebook they’re not getting an influx of calls from students in need of emotional support — and they’re not quite sure why that’s the case.

“I don’t think the volume of calls has been higher,” Marcus said. “But that could mean that students aren’t reaching out for support when they need it.”

Brenae Warner, a junior at Academy at Palumbo, which is also a special admission high school, said she has several friends and family members who have tested positive for COVID-19. She said it can be difficult to focus on schoolwork when her loved ones are in and out of the hospital.

As a result, she sometimes feels she isn’t getting from counselors what she really needs.

They “send their regards and say ‘I understand we’re going through this pandemic,’” Warner said. But given her main concerns right now, she feels counselors “are disregarding the emotional aspect and focusing more on academics.”

Though Marcus is a counselor at Masterman, not Palumbo, she said it can be difficult to tell when students need mental health support, especially when they don’t explicitly ask for it.

“With high school there’s often more of a focus on academics and college planning,” Marcus said.

College plans up in the air

College is a major point of stress for many high school students right now.

“There’s just so much uncertainty,” said Olmedo of Carver.

Most colleges closed for the rest of the year in March — students vacated their dorms, classes went online — and many institutions haven’t yet announced if they’ll be online in the fall. The uncertainty has led some students to consider a gap year. Other students have also considered taking classes at Community College of Philadelphia.

“If schools are going online anyway, you might want to save money and just take classes at CCP,” Marcus said.

“One of the main jobs of a counselor is to advise students about financial aid packages,” Olmedo said. But now there is something else to consider: “Do you really want to take out all those loans when you’re not going to get the on-campus experience.”

The school closures have made deciding where to go to college harder for students, Marcus said, because they can no longer visit college campuses. But some colleges offer virtual tours. The website, You Visit, offers free virtual tours of more than 600 colleges. That can be a game changer for economically disadvantaged students, who can’t necessarily afford to visit every college on their list in person.

Olmedo said Carver has given students the assignment of taking one or two virtual college tours. Masterman has also provided access to virtual tours on its Distance Counseling for Juniors page.

But with cancelled standardized tests, the pandemic has caused possibly more stress for juniors who still have to apply for colleges in the fall and winter. The College Board cancelled all SATs for the spring in March around the time schools closed. As a result, a lot of schools, like Cornell, that usually require standardized tests, have now gone test optional. So far, however, Pitt, Drexel and UPenn, all popular choices for District students, still require the SAT or ACT. Temple has been test-optional since 2014.

Palumbo student Warner said the cancellations are unfortunate for students who have spent several hours a week preparing for standardized tests. “Yes, some schools are going test optional, but it doesn’t really feel like we have an option if we never get to take the SAT.”

The pandemic has also affected the College Board’s AP exams, which got off to a rocky start on May 11. The College Board put the exams online this year and nixed the multiple choice section, only giving students 45 minutes for the free-response. The exams are also open book this year — they’re usually closed book.

But the start of the exams was marked by widespread server crashes and evidence that students were relying on Google searches for test answers — a practice not banned, but strongly discouraged by the College Board.

Warner also worries that some colleges on her list, which includes NYU, Drexel and Temple, won’t accept AP credit because of the exams’ untested new format and problematic rollout. Pitt, Temple and UPenn say that so far there have been no changes to their AP credit policy, but they haven’t necessarily finalized a decision yet.

Every changed or cancelled standardized test contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the college process, as does not knowing whether or not colleges will be online or in-person in the fall. Students say they’re stressed, but counselors across the District say they are equipped to handle it.

While the District is “pumping out chromebooks” and wants “students to log in and do their work,” Olmedo said, “we have to remember that we’re suffering a communal trauma here. We have to step back and really make sure the children are doing OK emotionally.”