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By Julian Peeples

Counselors, school psychologists, nurses and speech-language pathologists’ work in the distance learning era

The efforts undertaken by teachers to support their students through the COVID19 pandemic are nothing less than heroic. But what about the dedicated people in our schools who provide specialized support and services to students? How is the distance learning environment impacting the essential, complex and often federally mandated work of speech-language pathologists, school psychologists, counselors and school nurses? We asked some of these professionals to share their experiences and add their important voices to the discussion about school in the era of COVID-19.

Dina Griffin
Speech-Language Pathologist, Evergreen Teachers Association

Describe your job in the age of COVID-19 in one word:

Eye-opening.

What’s a “typical” day for you in the new learning environment?

My typical distance learning day is a mix of video meetings with parents, co-workers and students, and paperwork. I write IEPs (individualized education programs) and reports, review files, respond to independent student work, provide feedback to parents, check emails, and create lesson plans. It just happens to take place in my house all online, so it’s been challenging!

“ Children are adaptable, but when developing communication skills virtually, nuances such as nonverbal gestures are lost on the screen.”

What kind of challenges does this pose for you and fellow SLPs?

My speech therapy sessions with students were always dynamic — on the floor playing with toys, doing movement activities, working at tables with fun materials. Now, I spend work hours in front of the laptop, which can be very draining. The biggest challenge has been using technology as the vehicle of service delivery. I’ve been successful at getting team members and parents connected, but scheduling virtual meetings is difficult.

Although my district has provided devices for those in need, distance learning is still not equitable. Lack of technology skills, different home languages, child care challenges and shared devices within a household present many challenges. Technology glitches, lag time, and unstable connections disrupt the natural flow of communication that we would have in person. Children are flexible and adaptable, but when developing communication skills virtually, the nuances of communication, such as nonverbal gestures, are lost on the screen.

What should colleagues to know about life right now for SLPs?

Navigating the legality of implementing a student’s IEP in this new distance learning model has been tricky. As we learned about the ever-changing state and county directives for our district, our specialists continued to have weekly virtual meetings to discuss how to meet the needs of our students. Many of us went into the field with the idea of hands-on therapy and being in person with our students. My colleagues and I have discussed a focus on relationships and our rapport with students and families as a way to emotionally support them during this time. Speech therapy does not always have to be drills and flashcards, and we want to give parents ways to include speech and language into their homes. Flexibility has been key in working with students’ families and juggling the responsibilities of our own families.

Sarah Nielsen Boyd
School Nurse, Oakland Education Association

Describe your job in the age of COVID-19 in one word:

Lonely.

What’s a “typical” day for you in the new learning environment?

I check my email first thing. There are so many emails each day. I answer emails, attend virtual meetings, and contact families to check in on kids who have complicated health conditions or need virtual health assessments for an IEP. I have been working on the huge list of kids who are missing immunizations and trying to find missing shots in the California Immunization Registry. I meet/chat/ email with colleagues to discuss the challenges and successes of various tactics in this new work world. We share resources that we can offer families and share webinars/articles related to COVID.

“Because we are such a small group, there is almost no attention being paid to what we do and how to support us.”

What kind of challenges does this pose for you and fellow school nurses?

A lot of the work that I do during a regular school day is computer work. But I also see many kids and talk with staff, so the biggest difference and also challenge is not interacting with human beings on a daily basis. Hands-on nursing involves actually being with a person: feeling the temperature of their skin, looking at their facial expressions, talking privately, and examining whatever body part needs to be examined. All of these things are more difficult (or impossible) via telehealth.

What do you want your colleagues to know about life right now for school nurses?

I think, like other professions, school nurses are struggling with some aspects of distance work, juggling family life and finding a silver lining in life during shelter in place. I think most of us worry about our most vulnerable students. We worry about the students in the moderate and severely handicapped classes whose parents get no respite and who are difficult to reach with Zoom and phone calls. We worry about the families of students who don’t speak English, who are recent arrivals/ immigrants, and who don’t qualify for any federal assistance. We worry about kids going hungry and living in dangerous environments.

How does this crisis affect school nurses differently, since you are both educators and health care professionals?

Because we are such a small group, there is almost no attention being paid to what we do and how to support us. Most of us are doing the work that we know needs to get done with little guidance.

Glenda Ortez-Galán
Counselor, Sequoia District Teachers Association

Describe your job in the age of COVID-19 in one word:

Octopus. It feels like I have eight arms trying to navigate so many things at once.

What’s a “typical” day for you in the new environment?

Our roles require us to interact with students, parents, caregivers, teachers, school staff, admin and community partners — imagine having to navigate communication with all of these individuals through a screen! Spring is a very busy time for school counselors as we are programming student schedules for the following school year, helping seniors make decisions for college. On some days, I have back-to-back video meetings with students, department members, teachers, administrators and district personnel.

“With online counseling it is a completely different world. Not being able to offer a student a tissue when they are in tears is heartbreaking.”

What kind of challenges does this pose for you and fellow school counselors?

There are more ethical considerations that we need to keep in mind when counseling students remotely or online. School counselors work with students on their academic and personal/social challenges. There are times when I am holding a videoconference with a student who is in crisis and remind myself to provide the crisis line phone number in case we get disconnected. It is also a challenge to offer students support when they are unable to share what is currently going on in their lives if their family members are within close proximity. In a traditional counseling office, you can ensure confidentiality as it is just the counselor and the student(s). With online counseling, it is a completely different world. Not being able to offer a student a tissue when they are in tears is heartbreaking.

How is your work going to be different next year and moving forward, and what are you doing to prepare for it?

It’s really tough to plan for next year because things are still up in the air. My colleagues and I are planning on Plan A: Return to the school building, Plan B: Continue distance learning or a hybrid version of both. Either way, returning in the fall will require several intervention meetings to help students get back on track since several students on my caseload fell behind this semester. If we are still working at home, I fear that we will not be able to get to all of our students in a timely manner.

Ultimately, our jobs require face-to-face contact, usually within close proximity. We rely on body language and facial cues to assess how the student is feeling and performing inside the classroom. Sadly, counselors do not foresee being able to experience that close proximity for quite some time, as we will be required to wear masks and need to maintain a healthy distance. Counseling is going to look very different for the foreseeable future.

What should colleagues know about life right now for school counselors?

We are doing the best that we can to keep up with our caseloads, and please know that many aspects of our jobs are taking twice as long as they would at school.

Herenia Shepherd
School Psychologist, West Kings County Teachers Association

Describe your job in the age of COVID-19 in one word:

Fluid.

What’s a “typical” day for you in the new learning environment?

It starts with checking for urgent emails, making breakfast for my kids and getting them started on their distance learning, and then I work on reports for IEP meetings. There are always calls or texts from teachers, colleagues and administrators, Zoom meetings, and of course, times when I have to walk away from work to help my kids with their assignments or to prepare lunch. I’m also always on the lookout for articles or webinars to help me prepare for the opening of schools.

“We’re like ninjas, addressing a multitude of issues daily in the background, seemingly unnoticed, ready to jump in to help at a moment’s notice.”

What challenges does this pose for you and fellow school psychologists?

This is different in that the reports I’m writing are based solely on teacher/parent reports and on previous evaluation results, rather than completing a full psycho-educational reevaluation for triennial IEPs. Additionally, we are not able to complete any initial psycho-educational evaluations. We will feel the effects of this when schools open again, as we will have to play catch-up to complete all of the evaluations that needed to be done during the school closures as well as all of the triennial reevaluations that will be due at that time.

Another aspect of how things are different is that, rather than supporting teachers with behavioral challenges that students may have, I now host Zoom meetings with parents to support them with their child at home. I listen to their concerns and provide them with strategies to try at home, or I model sensory regulation activities. I’ve been happy to be able to support parents, and am hopeful that they will continue to support their children at home once they are back in school.

How will your work be different next year? How are you preparing for it?

This is the most intimidating part because we don’t yet know what will be different, and so we don’t know how to prepare for it. We are anticipating that many students may have anxiety, difficulty adapting to being at school again, and although we wish it were different, an increase in reports of abuse. Our students are going to need our emotional support, and teachers will too. It will be difficult for teachers to manage not only their own anxious feelings, but those of their students as well. But we will be there to support them in any way that we can.

What should colleagues know about life right now for school psychologists?

I feel that even on a “typical” workday we’re like ninjas, addressing a multitude of issues daily in the background, seemingly unnoticed, ready to jump in to help at a moment’s notice. We’re still here, doing just that — please reach out to us if you need us — and educating ourselves in an effort to prepare for all the challenges to come.