How the pandemic has shifted the role of school counselors

Education

Left: Counselors at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond — Redell Thomas, Rahmah Johnson and Willie Dupree. Right: Rahmah Johnson working in her office during the school year.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — One ‘normal’ thing that Rahmah Johnson, RPS 2020 Educator of the Year and Guidance Counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School, will miss during this upcoming virtual school year is getting to hug her students.

Johnson said she will miss wrapping them in love, meeting with them in person and being able to read their facial expressions and body language.

“Over the computer or over the phone, they may say that they are fine but in person when a student says that they are fine, you can read them and be able to pull them to the side and say, ‘I know you said you’re okay, but I can see it in your face and in your demeanor that you are struggling with something and I want to be able to help you. And if you are not to talk right now, just know that I am here,'” Johnson told 8News.

As schools begin to open virtually, students are having to adjust to not only virtual instruction but other services provided by educational institutions, such as counseling.

Prior to school ending in June, Johnson said that teachers had built connections with students, making it easier to check-in. A group of educators at Thomas Jefferson H.S. made it their priority by establishing a phone committee to call every student.

“As school counselors, our daily goals are to meet the needs of students academically, their personal and social needs and to work on awareness and college preparation,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she and her coworkers have followed up with students on a weekly basis since the pandemic started. They have been doing “temperature checks,” asking students how they are doing and what do they need.

The national recommended ratio is 1 counselor to every 250 students, according to the American School Counselor Association.

Virginia advocates said the state is nowhere near it.

“Currently, our average ratio is 1 to 364, but even that is skewed,” Brett Welch with the Virginia School Counselor Assocation said, in an email to 8News.

Welch said the Virginia Board of Education recommended reduced ratios and during the legislative session that number was negotiated to 1 counselor to 325 students — as long as funding was available.

In light of the pandemic, the funding was rescinded leaving counselors back at where they started.

“Between high ratios and so many “other duties as assigned“ like administrative, testing, lunch duty, etc., school counselors often have a difficult time doing the heartwork that is connecting with students,” Welch said.

According to Welch, over 70% of the time, a school counselor is the only metal health professional a student will ever see for the rest of their lives.

As many students navigate the pandemic and a state of awareness surrounding racial injustices, Johnson said the commitment counselors have to their students doesn’t change just because they are not in a school building anymore.

“It’s different. But the love and the commitment and the dedication as a school counselor is still there,” Johnson said.

“We are still the heartbeat of the school,” Johnson added.

In July, Johnson wrote a letter for RPS families on how parents can speak with their children about racial injustices. In her letter, Johnson included tips on how caregivers can help relieve the emotional stress and trauma a child might feel during this time:

  • Always validate your child’s feelings.
  • Help your child to process their feelings.
  • Be empathetic.
  • Ask probing questions. (Example: What makes you angry?)
  • Be creative in your approach. (Example: Students can journal or illustrate their feelings and emotions.)
  • Review history, as this is a teachable moment.
  • Encourage your family members who are 18 and older to become registered voters.
  • Foster positive development of every child’s racial identity.
  • Model equity.
  • Challenge intolerance.

The Virginia School Counselors Association and the American School Counselors Association has also uploaded webinars and workshops to help support students through this time. Johnson said that RPS teachers have participated in division-wide training regarding race.

“Whatever we can do to ensure that students are maintaining a healthy state of mind, that’s what we are doing,” Johnson said.

When asked about what concerns her the most about not being able to meet with her students in person, Johnson said she worries about the mental health of her students.

“I worry about the mental health. I worry about the disconnect. You know some students thrive off of a community, thrive off of being with our friends,” Johnson said. “I worry about that social-emotional piece.”

Rahmah Johnson and her former student Jaylen Johnson on the day of his athletic signing. J. Johnson now attends Villanova University.

She also used to worry about if her student’s where getting enough to eat. However, RPS has made meal distribution during the pandemic a priority and has already prepared and distributed more than $1 million meals to families.

As students return to school, Johnson said RPS counselors will be providing them with virtual classroom guidance. They will be connected to all teacher’s classrooms through Google Classroom. Counselors will also hold individual and group sessions — virtually.

Johnson’s priority is to keep students in the know. She said she wants to ensure that virtual learning does not widen the achievement gap.

“We are working to close the achievement gap,” she said.

Counselors will still give students the tools they need to prepare for college. Students will participate in virtual college tours, SAT prep and apply for scholarships.

“Things change, but things remain the same,” Johnson said. “We have just had to find a different way to meet the needs of the students.”

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