By Grace Jenkins
In the weeks following the closure of schools in the Manheim Township District on March 17, the counselors and psychologists in the high school have experienced issues communicating with students.
“Trying to communicate with students and not getting a response [is a big challenge]! We communicate through Email, Schoology, and phone calls. Unfortunately, students prefer to text, and that is not a district-approved means of communication for us. I continue to try to reach out as best as I can and let students and parents know we are here to help them,” said Mrs. Michelle Stoudt, one of the counselors. The other counselors also expressed similar frustrations with getting in contact with students, most agreeing that time and time again, they are the ones reaching out to students.
With the stay-at-home order in Pennsylvania, the counselors believe the unreciprocated communication between students and counselors is due to the distractions from being at home, a reliance on parental support, and students not knowing how to contact counselors. At school, counselors were more accessible, and students were aware of how to touch base with a counselor, need-be.
“It’s interesting…I have not received as many responses as I anticipated [from students]. Perhaps that is due to kids being more relaxed at home with more flexible schedules, the ability to sleep in, and flexible due dates…Either way…the kids I have talked to seem to be doing ‘okay’, [or] at least as okay as the rest of us,” Mrs. Sara Judge, one of the two psychologists, said. Mrs. Judge works with freshmen and juniors while her colleague, Ms. Annie Cappelli, handles sophomores and seniors.
One of the unique responsibilities the school psychologists have, that differs from a counselor, is that the psychologists perform psychoeducational assessments and determine special education eligibility for students. Because of the nature of the evaluations, the psychologists have had more trouble adapting to the virtual setting. “Perhaps the biggest change, though, has been in how I am able to evaluate students’ needs…Typically, I am able to work with students one-on-one and assess their cognitive, academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs, but conducting virtual testing is not advisable for my purposes. So, essentially, all the evaluations are ‘incomplete’ and will need to be opened and completed again when in-person school resumes,” Mrs. Judge explains.
While the counselors and psychologists initially prepared minimally for the shutdown, once they were aware of the severity of the circumstance, the Counseling Department met several times in order to see to it that the needs of the students would be met during this time. It was critical for the counselors to develop a way to meet and help students in a manner that respected social distancing.
“As a department, we began planning how we could help support students since we weren’t going to be able to see them face-to-face. We explored different technologies to connect with students and tried to think of what students were going to need most during this stressful time,” Mr. Kevin Elias said. Mr. Elias has been in the counseling field for five years, before coming to Manhiem Township High School two years ago.
Similar to many people in this unique circumstance, the adaptations have taken a toll on these faculty members when dealing with changes in how they interact with students and maintaining a balance between ‘work’ life and ‘home’ life.
“The biggest challenge I have is feeling like I’m not doing enough. I want to be a resource and support for our students, but when I’m stuck at home I sometimes feel like I’m not doing enough,” Mrs. Denise Hall, one of the counselors, said.
One of the biggest changes both the school psychologists and the counseling department has struggled with is the transition from in-person to virtual meetings. “It’s a big change not seeing the students every day. That’s the reason I love going to work–talking over the phone just isn’t the same,” Mrs. Hall explains.
On top of that, many of the counselors are juggling families along with work responsibilities. “The first few weeks of quarantine were challenging, but I’m getting into a good swing of things now. I’ve designated part of my house as my ‘office’, and it helps to be physically in that space to be in ‘work-mode’. I encourage students to have a designated space, even if it’s the kitchen table, to do their work. It’s best if this space is not somewhere you normally relax like your bed or couch,” Ms. Cappelli said.
“I try to get up and go to bed at roughly the same times as when we were in school, but my working hours look a little different these days…When in school, I want to focus completely on school, but when I’m home, I want to be one hundred percent with my family. Now, these two worlds are blended,” Mrs. Ellizabeth Ziegler said.
Mrs. Ziegler, as the K-12 Content Specialist for the Counseling Department, helps prepare students for post-secondary education, while focusing on career readiness. Working with the counselors and teachers across the district, Mrs. Ziegler develops curriculum that will better prepare future students for the real world. Mrs. Ziegler has contributed to the changes in the advisory format this year, some of which that have occurred recently in order to offer students more resources and support. During the bi-weekly Advisory period, the lessons will have a focus on social and emotional issues
During a survey conducted through the first online advisory, the results indicated that students also would like tips on how to foster positivity and manage stress alongside dealing with time management and motivation issues. Students can find information on how to combat these problems HERE, or on the district website under “Addressing Mental Health Needs and Social-Emotional Learning During Covid-19”.
“I have found that many students are experiencing similar concerns…Many people are experiencing anxiety surrounding this global pandemic…I encourage everyone to find someone to share their feelings with and to work on building coping skills. This can be a parent, a friend, or any school employee. If the anxiety seems to be affecting someone to the point of interfering with daily living activities such as sleeping, eating, and completing necessary schoolwork, it may be time to talk to a professional. School psychologists are available to help navigate those conversations with your parents and help get you connected to community resources,” Ms. Cappelli said.
During this pandemic, the counselors believe mental health hasn’t worsened; instead, the triggers have changed. The psychologists are also in agreement, elaborating that students with pre-existing mental health struggles find the uncertainty during this time to be a daily trigger for anxiety.
“We know that especially trying times can exacerbate already existing mental health conditions, and a global pandemic is no different. Also, kids who really need school to be their break from a difficult home life are stuck completely in that difficult home life right now with no chance of a break and this can be really overwhelming…many people are dealing with new or greater complex feelings and challenges than they may have seen before,” Mrs. Michelle Pollis, one of the counselors, said.
Many students who viewed school as a safe space have lost that sense of escape from the harsh realities of their struggles at home because of the stay-at-home order. Depending on situations and dynamics in the home, students might not feel comfortable attending a one-on-one zoom session or talking over the phone with counselors because of the environment they live in; whether it is due to distractions, the unpredictability of the environment, or the lack of privacy, the counselors haven’t dealt with emotional problems since the beginning of quarantine.
During this time, counselors are primarily focusing on academics and making sure that students stay on top of their work, using phone calls and emails as a means to check-in with students struggling to keep up. “I am doing a lot of academic review and math to figure out averages, grades, credits, etc. I have not been doing as much social and emotional counseling, or even as many general check-ins with students,” Ms. Sassaman explains.
Despite school no longer being in session in a public setting, the counselors hope that students recognize that even if meeting face-to-face isn’t feasible at this time, they are still here to help guide and support students virtually. Students don’t have to deal with all of the uncertainty alone.
“Even though we are not there, physically, we are an email away, and…you are not alone. Do not hesitate to reach out and call on us if we can be a resource! The key to success right now is to advocate, try your best and communicate with anyone that can help–teachers, counselors, administration, psych’s, etc. We are here to help!” Mr. Evans said.
“No other students in this last century will have been able to say they lived through virtual schooling during a global pandemic. The strengths you [the students] are discovering about yourselves and the creative coping skills and strategies you are utilizing every day now will forever be in your ‘tool kit’. Please know that your current struggles are investments in your future selves…Be sure to give yourself credit for even your small successes,” Mrs. Pollis advises.
Mrs. Ziegler, the content K-12 specialist, recommended, “The other thing is that there is no one way to take care of yourself. Try different things. I’ve tried meditation many times, and I tried it again when this all started. It works for so many people, but it’s just not for me. I found that what does work for me is to belt out songs or dance, and I start to feel better immediately. Get creative and don’t stop until you find something that works for you.”
Students and parents seeking ways to cope with and recognize stress can find more information from the CDC HERE. Some red flags students and parents should be wary of are changes in mood or behavior like depression, mood swings, irritability, different sleeping and eating patterns, and isolation tendencies.
Ways students can improve their mental situation is by decreasing the amount of time spent watching the news, making sure the news being consumed is reliable, creating some sort of sleep schedule, eating healthy and drinking enough water, seeking an escape through the outdoors, and making sure to connect with others virtually. Complete isolation and withdrawal damages relationships and the stability of the human psyche; humans naturally seek out relationships.
“Hang in there! No one truly knows what is going to happen, and while that is certainly not the most comfortable notion, the practice of learning how to be ‘comfortable with uncertainty’ is something that can and will serve you well in life and in your future,” Mrs. Judge advises.
Minding your mind is also an organization that offers many useful materials for students struggling during this time. Students can find more information HERE. Mrs. Pollis also recommended students watch a recorded zoom session where several young adults discuss pre-existing mental health issues and how they are coping with them during quarantine HERE using the password: Z0rOyFGTfozB28.
For students wishing to seek out their counselor, the caseloads are determined by last name. So students with last names starting with the letters A-Co should message Mrs. Pollis, letters Cr-Ha should message Mr. Elias, He-L should message Mr. Evans, M-Pa should message Ms. Sassaman, Pe-So Mrs. Hall, and Sp-Z and IB students should message Mrs. Stoudt. Students can email and Schoology message their counselors, and those wishing to be evaluated by a psychologist should email Ms. Cappelli and Mrs. Judge depending on their grade. Sophomores and seniors should message Ms. Cappelli, and freshmen and juniors should email Mrs. Judge. More information and updates can be found on the district website under ‘Addressing Mental Health Concerns’.