For educators in the Oregon School District, teaching students virtually during a pandemic was never part of the playbook.
So when classrooms closed in March 2020 – slowly reopening over the past three months – keeping an eye on students’ mental and emotional development was a challenge, with county-imposed social distancing protocols. But school counselors found they were able to adapt to work together with families to navigate the many unknowns – with the help of new technology – to maintain communication with students.
Prairie View Elementary School counselor Nicole Canfield told the Observer that social-emotional learning – which counselors abbreviate as SEL – is particularly impactful in the earliest grades, making those connections all the more important,
“When children can learn and practice these skills as little people, they are better able to successfully navigate strong emotions and problems that come their way in adulthood,” she said.
Teaching SEL lessons is a main role of counselors, but with the school closures, they were faced with the immediate problem of keeping in contact with students.
As the pandemic progressed, the counselors realized students needed more interaction and social emotional learning; particularly at the younger grades, as kids just weren’t making the same connections as before, with teachers or peers. They had to adapt their virtual lessons to make sure students were getting support on SEL, and that counselors were able to keep track of students’ health.
But there were lessons learned and silver linings through it all.
Canfield said the challenging year brought about a surprising “perk” she hopes to build on, as for the first time, parents were able to see and hear the types of social-emotional skills their children were learning.
“I had many parents tell me they appreciated hearing the language we were using to talk about things like strong feelings and calming our bodies down.”
Jurasewicz said for counselors, having to use new technology has provided new ways to connect with students, and new opportunities for the future.
“Not only have we grown in the ways we connect with students, but students have grown in the ways that they connect with us,” she wrote in an email to the Observer.
Making the switch
When the pandemic broke, counselors’ main form of communication was through students’ email accounts or calling their families, Canfield said.
For anything more advanced, schools had to make sure they could communicate virtually, and worked right away to provide internet service and devices to families in need.
“It was very different recording our weekly lessons and talking to a screen versus a room full of students,” she said.
Within a few weeks, schools began incorporating Google Chat text messages, and Oregon High School counselor Kelly Jurasewicz said some counselors started incorporating instant messaging, texting and videoconferencing. Last fall, they started video conferencing with students, using Google Meets. She said it turned out to be the main way counselors stayed connected with online students and families throughout this year.
“They have picked up on the changes quickly and have navigated everything this year with grace,” she wrote in an email to the Observer.”
Rome Corners Intermediate School counselor Colleen Schell said virtual meetings turned out to be easier and more natural than she expected, although it’s challenging to read a student’s body language when they turn their camera off.
“Most students responded well to virtual meetings, (and) it’s nice to talk without masks,” she wrote the Observer in an email. “As students returned to school, virtual meetings became in-person and the transition was not difficult.”
Canfield said while most older students were already familiar with that technoclogy, younger students often needed help. She said while it first felt a bit awkward to meet virtually, “both adults and students adapted quickly.”
“I bet if you asked some elementary students, they would say there are some perks to meeting virtually from your home,” she said. “I had students tell me they liked being able to sleep a little later in the morning, and so many enjoyed being able to show me things in their home that are special to them.”
Adapting on the fly
Connecting with students was a particular challenge at Forest Edge Elementary School, which opened last August. While K-2 students were able to attend in-person learning by mid-September, other grades weren’t able to until February, which caused some shuffling with school counselors.
Principal Kerri Modjeski said the school’s student services team used SEL lessons, both virtually and in person, to help get to know students and their needs.
“This has been a great way to set the foundation in a new school of treating each other with care and respect,” she wrote the Observer in an email.
RCI principal Cyndi Olander said the school, which houses students in grades 5-6, recognized a need for more support for students as the pandemic months lingered, instituting daily SEL lessons so students could learn and practice regulation and problem solving skills.
“(This) has helped them reinforce their resiliency skills while ensuring they have multiple trusted adults to support them as well,” she wrote the Observer in an email.
With some students attending in-person classes only in the morning, and some students all virtual, counselors have had to adapt their schedules accordingly to make sure students have equitable access, Oregon Middle School counselor Emily Severson said. School counselors hold small group opportunities online at 3 p.m. to make sure everyone can participate, and schedule individual meetings in-person or online.
Canfield said the main goal was to let students know that “even though we weren’t able to physically be with them on a daily basis, they were always in our hearts and minds.”
Prairie View staff put together morning announcement videos and collage pictures so students could see their faces and know that we were missing them, she said, and created Google forms for students to do virtual check-ins.
“This allowed them and/or their parents/guardians to let us know how they were doing and request an individual virtual meeting if they thought this would be helpful,” she said.