Last spring, Alicia Godfrey grew increasingly concerned as some of her students at Roundup Elementary slipped off her radar.

After 14 years as the school’s counselor, she’d become accustomed to monitoring kids in classrooms and more personal face-to-face sessions for signs that they might need a little additional support. But with the school shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19, several of those students disappeared. Their families failed to answer phones or respond to messages. In some cases, Godfrey said, parents’ phone numbers were no longer working.

“We didn’t know where [the students] were, we didn’t know how they were,” she said. “We did a lot of packet distribution so they could come and get their work and turn it back in, and we would never see those families.”

Godfrey’s mind dwelled especially on students who had been enrolled in services like free and reduced-cost lunches or Roundup’s Backpack Program, which provides bagged meals for students who need additional food outside of school. Though Roundup has now managed to track down students through transfer requests or county homeschool registrations, Godfrey said the situation was “very scary.”

Godfrey’s experience in Roundup speaks to one of the most pronounced challenges faced by school counselors across the nation during the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters of counselors surveyed for a 2020 State of the Profession report by the American School Counselors Association said their duties had shifted last year to include following up with students who did not participate in virtual classes. Just over half said they’d had to follow up with students who did not return when their school reopened. Teresa Majerus, who has worked as a counselor at Lewistown Junior High for 16 years, noted that student attendance issues led to her school’s resource officer knocking on several doors last fall.

“There’s always that little fear of, yeah, we haven’t heard from them on the computer and we can’t get through to them on the phone, are they OK?” said Majerus, who was named school counselor of the year by the Montana School Counselor Association in 2020.

Those fears represent a small fraction of the COVID-induced concerns and chaos that have fallen squarely on a profession dedicated to the academic and social well-being of Montana’s kids. Over the past 11 months, the pandemic has shuffled the deck for school counselors, adding duties like visiting homes and recording attendance while reducing some classroom instruction and student orientation activities. Counselors in Montana cite difficulties not just in keeping tabs on some students, but in effectively engaging with others in a virtual environment — a challenge noted by 62% of respondents to the ASCA’s 2020 survey.

DeSmet Public School counselor Caitie Bloom: “I think we’re probably going to see a lot more trauma coming up, whether the home life hasn’t been the best and they’re experiencing trauma from that, or trauma from losing family members and not being able to see them, or just life being disrupted for a long period of time.” Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

“School counselors and other educators in the building are being called in and pulled in to be substitutes,” said ASCA Executive Director Jill Cook. “There are some who are taking temperatures. There are some who track down students that they haven’t heard from. They’re doing things and filling roles that they haven’t previously had to fill, and so then that takes away from them doing what they do as the school counselor.”

Caitie Bloom, a second-year counselor at Missoula’s DeSmet Public School who works with students from 5 to 13 years old, characterizes her earliest weeks of the pandemic as “damage-control mode.” As teachers and students alike struggled to adapt to the technological basics of remote learning, Bloom’s normal social/emotional learning lesson plan fell by the wayside, replaced by constant check-ins with students via video chat, phone and email. She even made a few housecalls, she said. She found it impossible to ignore the strain she saw on parents, too, and her counseling services quickly expanded to include them as well.

“Parents and students were getting kind of depressed from lack of social interaction, so that was a really big piece,” said Bloom, who is related to a Montana Free Press staff member. “And then the other piece was just an intense amount of stress trying to juggle jobs in a pandemic and homeschooling their kid at the same time. It was stress about the current situation and also a lot of depression and sadness about being so isolated.”

Today, Bloom still tracks her students’ needs using the same three-tiered system she used prior to the pandemic. Tier-one kids require minimal counseling, usually accomplished through weekly all-class lessons on bullying or diversity. Students in tier two need the extra attention afforded by smaller group sessions. Tier three is reserved for kids who need one-on-one help to cope with academic or social and emotional issues. 

The pandemic, Bloom said, has thrust more students into tiers two and three, and she doesn’t anticipate that trend reversing any time soon.

“I think we’re probably going to see a lot more trauma coming up, whether the home life hasn’t been the best and they’re experiencing trauma from that, or trauma from losing family members and not being able to see them, or just life being disrupted for a long period of time,” Bloom said. “I’m noticing that a lot of kids are wanting to come check in with me more regularly.”

Tina Boone has worked as a counselor at Billings’ Skyview High School for 16 years, and has headed the counseling department there for eight. She estimates that only a small number of her student interactions throughout the fall and winter were focused on social and emotional needs. The vast majority have been oriented to academics. It’s not that high school students are weathering the pandemic any better mentally, she said, but more likely that they’re simply not reaching out. She said the situation is particularly worrisome in regards to students who are not physically present in the classroom, where a teacher might normally pick up on behavioral cues.

“School counselors and other educators in the building are being called in and pulled in to be substitutes. There are some who are taking temperatures. There are some who track down students that they haven’t heard from. They’re doing things and filling roles that they haven’t previously had to fill, and so then that takes away from them doing what they do as the school counselor.”

American School Counselors Association Executive Director Jill Cook

“There’s nobody having that connection. There’s nobody doing that check-in every period,” Boone said. “So a lot of those students just try to get through it, or they engage in other activities that maybe aren’t quite as healthy. But they’re not necessarily reaching out like they would have here.”

A study published last November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the pandemic has had a widespread negative impact on the mental well-being of children in the U.S., especially teenagers. According to the study, the proportion of pediatric emergency room visits specifically for mental health treatment increased 31% among children age 12 to 17 between March and October 2020 over the same period in 2019. For children age 5 to 11, the increase was 24%.

“We’re hearing very consistently that students’ mental health and staff mental health and the social/emotional needs of everyone is just the paramount issue that needs to be addressed,” Cook said. “Because students can’t learn if they’re dealing with other things.”

In addition to taking responsibility for the mental health needs of students and, in some cases, parents, school counselors have also found themselves increasingly coming to the aid of their colleagues. That peer-to-peer counseling has taken many forms, from casual venting sessions to the inclusion of wellness exercises or self-care tips in staff meetings. Majerus said she toyed with the idea of implementing an “elk call for educators” in Lewistown, a play on the evening howls for health care workers that regularly rang out in communities across Montana last year. At DeSmet, Bloom converted a Folgers coffee can into a collection box for encouraging “shout-outs” between staff members, and offered suggestions for additional counseling services to colleagues in need of outside support.

“I think you’re kind of always in that role of designated school cheerleader, that you’re always trying to promote positive psychology in the school, but I felt like that was even more needed,” Bloom said. “It was a totally different thing than any of us are used to, so I was sending out a lot of resources just to teachers to help promote self-care.”

Ultimately, the heightened pressure school counselors continue to face underscores a need that Montana’s education system has been keenly aware of for years. In 2019, Montana had one counselor for every 311 students — better than the national average of 1/430, but short of the ASCA’s recommended ratio of 1/250. With the state still mired in a public health crisis, and counselors’ minds already turning to the long-term academic and mental health impacts they’ll be helping students navigate in the years to come, Godfrey, in Roundup, thinks the issue will continue to fuel advocacy among education stakeholders.

“We’re fortunate at our school that our administrators do a good job of making sure each building has a counselor, but not all schools are like that,” said Godfrey, who also serves on the board of the Montana School Counselors Association. “In some schools, the counselor is also a teacher, so they’re getting two [class] periods of counseling, and what we’re finding through the pandemic is the needs are higher than that.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.