In the years leading up to the pandemic, online learning was on the rise in the United States, as increasing numbers of students ranging from kindergarten to the postsecondary level were enrolling in virtual schools and online distance-education programs. Covid-19 escalated this trend, and as it ushered in overnight school closures, the groundwork was laid for more deliberate and permanent changes to the educational landscape. Many states, recognizing the unique opportunities that the remote learning setting provides, began approving virtual academies and charter public schools to serve as state-funded educational environments. Some offer part-time hybrid models (with a mix of face-to-face and remote learning), while others offer fully online programs. As a result, many school counselors began offering virtual services and/or completely transformed their school counseling programs into virtual ones.
I serve as a school counselor in a fully online K-8 school. All students have a standard iPad issued by the school district, complete with access to various learning apps. They come from diverse backgrounds, with a myriad of reasons for choosing the virtual environment. Some are medically unable to attend school in-person, while others prefer a smaller class size or more opportunities for individualized instructional support and/or a more rigorous curriculum. Some students had experienced bullying in the brick-and-mortar school and feel safer attending school virtually, while others are coping with mental health issues and need a smaller or more private learning environment.
Whatever the reason, the virtual school setting provides unique opportunities to reach diverse student sets in ways that differ (or aren't available) in traditional face-to-face schools. Remote learning is portable, and offers more flexibility for students to attend classes. For example, students with medical conditions may attend classes in the car on the way to appointments and/or while in waiting rooms. Students who need intensive mental health services are able to receive them in the comfort and privacy of their home during the school day. Students who desire a more rigorous curriculum have more options in the virtual environment.
The Role of the Virtual School Counselor
As a virtual school counselor, I adhere to the same ethical guidelines as school counselors in face-to-face settings. I collaborate with various stakeholders (parents, administrators, teachers, and community members) to provide programs that meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. While my role is similar to that of school counselors who serve in school buildings, there is more emphasis on parent and student engagement, social-emotional learning, as well as more concentrated efforts to ensure counselor visibility in the virtual environment.
School Counselor Visibility
Our "school building" is made up of strong relationships between staff, parents and students. At the foundation of these relationships is trust, open communication, and ease of access to services through a variety of means. Counselor visibility has never been more important. Parents have direct access to me via phone calls, text messaging and email. In addition, I provide parents and students with an app (that I developed) through which they are able to message me directly, make appointments, and access community resources and national hotlines. My Zoom is also open at various times of the school day for both students and parents.
I write a monthly school counseling newsletter, which is shared on various platforms. The newsletter discusses school-wide activities for social-emotional learning, links to community, state, and national resources, as well timely parenting tips to reinforce the academic and personal development competencies taught each week.
Student Engagement & Social-Emotional Learning
I coordinate and/or provide weekly instruction to all students related to academic skills, personal development, and career planning. Individual competencies are chosen based on data from universal screeners and surveys. This year, executive functioning skills (such as organization and planning), growth mindset, and emotional regulation were identified as our top student needs. Skills for academic success and/or coping strategies are explicitly taught weekly to all students. Since students spend the majority of their day online, there is also emphasis on digital literacy and appropriate online conduct.
Students who need more intensive support are identified from various data, which is discussed at weekly meetings with stakeholders. These students receive small-group and/or individual counseling. They are also assigned a "Champion," (or mentor) to strengthen connection to school.
In some cases, referrals are made to community counseling agencies. Just as parents and students have come to prefer the flexibility and portability of remote learning, many prefer remote counseling services. There is almost always relief expressed when they understand that tele-health counseling is available for their student, even during the school day. Often times, I assist with facilitating the tele-health counselor and student sessions to occur in between class times. Community-based and tele-health counselors are easily able to attend virtual parent/teacher conferences to offer their expertise and advocate for students as school-based decisions are made.
Unique Opportunities to Engage Parents
One of my favorite aspects about virtual school counseling is that it provides unique opportunities to engage parents. Parents who are home during day are able to see and experience the social-emotional competencies that I teach. Recordings of my classes are available for parents who work outside of the home. Parents are able to reinforce these concepts as teachable moments arise. Parents can also log on to live parent learning sessions during their lunch break, or watch recordings at a later time.
Virtual conferencing has been a boon to parents who work outside the home. Many are able to attend from their place of employment during work breaks, eliminating the need to leave work early. If privacy is a concern, they are able to attend meetings from their cars.
Recognizing the Challenges of Online Learning
Just as there are advantages to online learning, it also has its challenges and limitations. In recognizing that there is little face-to-face interaction among students during the school day, I help coordinate opportunities for socializing, such as weekly clubs and periodic in-person field trips for team-building activities.
Also, some students may have more challenges accessing the virtual environment than others, whether it be internet access or parental technological knowledge. Cellular iPads are provided to students who do not have internet access. Training for parents in the use of devices and pertinent educational apps is also provided.
More and more, virtual schools are being reframed as permanent alternative learning environments, rather than a necessity born of the pandemic. As a virtual school counselor, I find these changes exciting, as we have more tools to reach students and are able meet their needs better than we could three years ago. However, here is still much work to be done as mind sets continue to shift. School and clinical counselors alike must continue to adapt services to ensure that they are accessible and relevant to the ever-changing needs of our youth. This requires much flexible thinking, collaboration, and being open to change.
-- Article written by Jodie LaFollette, MA, NCC, NCSC, LCHHC, NBTC who serves as K-8 School Counselor for Summit Virtual Academy in Salisbury, NC.
TCI offers a variety of CE opportunities for those working with schools, including individual courses for each level of school counseling: Elementary School, Middle School and High School Counseling.