‘We have a long road ahead of us’: How school counselors are changing to seek answers for student needs

Area school counselors say the stress from the coronavirus pandemic remains on-going and is taking its toll on some students and school families. Schools have scrambled to use a number of new strategies - including therapy dogs in Kings Schools (photo) - to help ease the unique stress being experienced by all students. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)
Area school counselors say the stress from the coronavirus pandemic remains on-going and is taking its toll on some students and school families. Schools have scrambled to use a number of new strategies - including therapy dogs in Kings Schools (photo) - to help ease the unique stress being experienced by all students. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)

The emotional stress of the coronavirus on students is showing up in the office visits and computer screen sessions of local school counselors who are trying to help struggling students during a global pandemic.

It’s not easy and sometimes heartbreaking, area school counselors tell the Journal-News.

Lee Day has been in public education for 42 years, the last seven as a counselor at Middletown High School. Ask Day if he has ever seen such an emotional toll for this long and he’ll tell you “no and it’s not getting any better.”

Coronavirus has touched every part of life, and some are struggling without usual parts of the school calendar to lean on.

“Normal rites of passage that many of us enjoyed during our own high school experience have been affected,” says Hamilton High School Counselor Kelsey Kigar.

“Many events and social functions that high school students look forward to and enjoy have been either cancelled or amended. Homecoming, fine art performances, club meetings, and attendance at extracurricular activities have all been impacted.”

Melissa Sayler, a counselor at Fairfield High School, says the ramped-up tensions for students is historic.

“They are feeling a sense of stress and being overwhelmed. They are trying to figure out how to do school differently, participate in groups and activities differently, socialize differently, and all the while missing out on milestones that many have looked forward to their entire lives,” says Sayler.

“They are struggling with the lack of routine and not knowing what to expect from this pandemic.”

The leaders at the top of area school districts see it too and are concerned as the pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary in March of altering every part of school life.

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At Mason Schools, Superintendent Jonathan Cooper’s recent weekly video message touched on what students are experiencing.

“It’s been a hard year. And the reality of this is it’s not behind us. We’re still in this pandemic and we have a long road ahead of us,” said Cooper.

Due to the abrupt shut-down of all Ohio K-12 schools last March and subsequent rollercoaster adjustments in school schedules and programs since the summer break, area educators saw this tsunami of student stress coming.

They scrambled to quickly expand their counseling services and their contractual agreements with local mental health agencies for additional assistance.

School-to-parent communications have never been so frequent or voluminous as area districts worked to assure school families all parts of their child’s well-being were a concern of their teachers and all school staffers.

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Redesigned classrooms to enhance coronavirus infection prevention, relaxation rooms, mask breaks, breaks outside in open air and even the use of four-legged stress relievers have been expanded.

Kings Schools now have three therapy dogs rotating through its buildings.

“We have a therapy dog for each of our though elementary schools,” says Dawn Gould, spokeswoman for Kings Schools.

The emotional and psychological benefits of the canines have been well-documented by child and learning experts. Besides the hugs and petting, many students enjoy reading to the dogs, encouraging their reading comprehension and verbal skills.

Kings Schools now have three therapy dogs in its schools to help relieve some of the stress brought on by trying to learn during the coronavirus. Many students enjoy reading to the dogs, which enhances student reading and verbal skills. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)
Kings Schools now have three therapy dogs in its schools to help relieve some of the stress brought on by trying to learn during the coronavirus. Many students enjoy reading to the dogs, which enhances student reading and verbal skills. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)

A school dog improves self-esteem, acceptance from others, and lifts mood, often provoking laughter and fun,” said Gould.

And “the physical interaction with a furry friend reduces blood pressure, provides tactile stimulation, assists with pain management, gives motivation to move, walk and stimulates the senses.”

For older, teenage students, the nearly year-long nature of the coronavirus pandemic is also taxing for their still developing brains to keep their relative isolation in proper perspective, says a Lakota East High School counselor.

“While adults are able to have a long-term perspective that can help them make adjustments as they look to the future, most teenagers have not fully developed this technique and can feel overwhelmed,” says Andrea Bryant.

“Limitations on socializing, concerns about their health or the health of their family and friends have added a great deal of stress on our students’ daily lives. A lot is unknown right now because of covid, including when things might get back to ‘normal.’”

Watching for changes

Counselors say the emotional toll of the coronavirus on some school families struggling with economic hardships shows up in office visits or internet academic or mental health discussions conducted remotely to lessen the chances of infection.

“There is no doubt that families have been impacted financially by the pandemic,” said Kigar. “We have noticed that many of our students have additional responsibilities at home, whether financial or with childcare. And many of our students, in addition to taking classes during a normal school day, are also working in the evening and weekends.”

Sayler says parents can help by “being a good listener and create space at home to have conversations about how your student is doing.”

“Watch for sudden changes in student’s behavior such as isolation, change in appetite, feeling hopeless, irritability. If you notice changes in behavior or have concerns for your child’s mental health you can reach out to your student’s school counselor for support and your counselor may be able to connect you with additional resources”

Day says parents should remain upbeat and connected with their children.

“Now, more than ever, it is very important for parents to be a part of their children’s everyday life experiences.”

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