Counsellor’s Corner: Guiding Students During COVID-19: The Silver Linings

I still remember spending Ontario’s Family Day weekend this past February up at Horseshoe Valley Resort skiing with my children and meeting up with friends. It was a beautiful outdoor experience as we enjoyed nature and talked about our upcoming March Break. When I got back to school, the chatter around the water cooler was all about the novel coronavirus emerging from China and how it was getting closer to North America. 

Then came Thursday, March 12, 2020 – two days before March Break – and the Ontario provincial government announced that students and teachers would not be returning to school until well after the break was over. What started as two extra weeks turned into keeping schools closed until at least May and we all know what happened after that: no return to school and remote learning for the remainder of the semester. As easy and natural as it was to fall into the negative and new reality of Covid-19, a lot of positives surfaced as well, at least for members of my guidance team.

While teachers had to quickly learn various virtual educational tools, develop on-line lessons, assessments, labs and projects, Guidance had to create new ways of reaching out and connecting with students and parents. We helped them with a multitude of guidance-related tasks, including course selections, course changes, summer school and e-learning applications. We assisted students in accessing their new virtual classrooms, re-set passwords for student board wide accounts, answered questions about post-secondary acceptances and navigated a myriad of other tasks. Then there was reaching out to our students who were struggling, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally and those who struggled with mental health issues. In an increasingly technologically sophisticated world, where everything is at the student’s fingertips, many struggled with accessing their class work and when they finally did, the feelings of anxiety when they saw the never ending list of assignments posted in each of their Google classes, was overwhelming, to say the least. Many students saw the quantity of work and shut down, opting to not start anything as the tasks seemed so daunting and without teacher instruction, many felt lost. As we all learned to adjust to our new way of reaching out and working, these were some of the downfalls to distance and virtual learning.

However, among all the uncertainty with education, remote learning, COVID-19 status reports and protocols, I can take away some positive experiences my guidance team and I encountered throughout this pandemic. First, we were all “inspired” to learn how to develop a virtual classroom…quickly. In our school, we made Google classrooms for each of our cohorts of students, as well as for each of the Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM) offered at our school. In doing so, we posted everything our students needed to know and it reached all of our students, which was something that rarely happened during school when we made announcements and did presentations. We posted information about our course change process, created Google forms for entering community service hours and requesting level changes for the semester or course changes for the upcoming school year. We also used our Google class as a platform to post mental health and scholarship information and resources; prayers and inspirational messages to help get our students through this time in isolation. We posted summer school information, applications, deadlines, courses, helped students process applications and worked on pathway planning. Due to this method of communication and information sharing, we felt confident that all of our students were getting the same access at the same time to all of this information. Because of that we had a lot of students reaching out to us virtually, asking questions and starting dialogues with us and with each other.

Another positive experience of being a guidance counsellor working remotely is that for some students, who may not have been motivated to come to our offices when school was open, felt more willing and comfortable to communicate through email. They were able to ask their questions from the security of their own homes and the safety of being behind their screens. I engaged in wonderful conversations with many students from different grades. Students that would rarely come down to see me in person were emailing me daily with questions or touching base for a quick chat. If students wanted to talk, they knew they could just ask their guidance counsellor to call them – and we did. We even asked the student the best time to reach out to them and honored their requests. The relationships we formed with students and their parents were rich and meaningful. The school bell, or another student or teacher waiting at our office doors did not rush us through a phone call. In this way, our conversations became quite meaningful in nature, as we were able to take our time.

Lastly, one of the key insights I came to discover, sitting at my computer for hours, was that not everything is an emergency or a crisis. Sometimes, when we are at school, operating from our offices, parents would pop in unexpectedly with a situation that they deemed a “crisis”. Sometimes, the family truly was in crisis and, like all Guidance Departments across the country, we’d jump into action, getting the most beneficial resources involved to help the student and their family. However, throughout the pandemic, when parents reached out, it was often about assignments, access to the virtual classrooms and post-secondary questions. We posted a lot of information regarding mental health resources and links to our school website, school twitter account and our Google classrooms. Parents and students had access to those resources so we did not encounter as many “crisis” calls as we would have had we been in school. When parents and students were in crisis and reached out, we quickly connected them with our social worker, child and youth worker, and school psychologist, via a video conference call and meetings.  

Although on-line learning and counselling will never replace the face-to-face experience, as we all learned to adapt, counsellors, students and parents, we really did learn a lot and ultimately have turned these lemons into lemonade. We need to be cognizant that COVID-19 is here to stay. We, as an education system are learning to adapt to this evolving virus and all its permutations. In Guidance, we are naturally quite flexible as that is the nature of the Guidance role – to roll with the punches. As we begin this new school year, I wish all my Guidance colleagues across the country the best of luck as they continue to reach out and service their students during this pandemic; in all the various forms those services take place. Our job is not to change the world, or the education system we work for, but rather, to help our students, one at a time.

We’re here to help them succeed academically and socially, and help them navigate life through this pandemic, together as partners. 

Let us remember as a community of educators to continue to breathe, smile and stay safe.

By Anna Macri