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How My State Counseling Association Is Leading Through COVID-19

Blog post written by
Loren Dittmar
School Counselor

As I pick up the phone and hear the somber tone of my principal, I can feel it in my bones that there has been a crisis.  It could be a car crash, a student in the hospital, the death of a parent, or even the worst news of all, that a student has completed suicide.  If you’ve been a school counselor as long as I have, you’ve had to deal with these types of crises more times that you’d like to share.  And strangely enough, those are the calls that I know exactly how to deal with.  In fact, I am considered one of the experts on campus who provides training to the rest of our faculty and staff about mental health and suicide prevention.  And while every situation is unique and my heart feels the depth of each tragedy, I’ve come to a place in my professional experience where I actually feel awkwardly comfortable in those chaotic times.  Aside from my professional experience working through these crises over the past 20 years, I’ve also overcome several personal tragedies.  So when I connect one-on-one with a student who has just lost a sibling or a parent, the depth of my empathy has reached a level that is so far beyond what I ever could have expected when I was going through my training so many years ago.  

But, this new crisis that we are all facing with COVID-19 is a whole different ball game.  I’ve gone through a whirlwind of emotions and have been bombarded with an overload of information, news, webinars, zoom meetings, and uncertainties.  My gut reaction as soon as schools were being closed was a deep concern for how we can support our students whose home lives are ‘less than ideal,’ who are emotionally vulnerable, who tend to be loners... those who lack the protective factors needed to get through times of trouble.  These students could no longer just walk into my office in tears and tell me their stories, and receive my empathy, calming tone and positive reassurances.  And then, of course, my heart shifted to how deeply this crisis could impact our graduating seniors.  What would we do to honor them if school closed for the remainder of the year?  And that led to further questions and concerns about the entire student population.  How can we best support all of our students through this crisis?  How do we assess each of their needs, and provide connection during a time of mandated social distancing?  And besides the multitude of the social/emotional concerns, we also need to figure out how to support our students academically.  How do we complete registration for next year’s classes? How do we support our students through distance learning?  How do we connect with students who haven’t logged into Google Classroom, nor responded to any emails or calls from their teachers?  

The list just continues to grow for each of us during this unprecedented time and the answers are not simple, nor clear-cut.  So, like any other significant challenge in life, the wisest thing we can do is connect and consult with others.  Fortunately, over the years I have remained a very active member of the state and national professional school counselor organizations, and I’ve met some incredible leaders in our field.  Whether I was in New York (where I initially achieved my credentials) or the ten years I worked in Georgia or during the past four years that I’ve been in California, the relationships that I have formed with other school counselors have been profound in my growth, not only professionally, but personally as well.  When you surround yourself with leaders who inspire you, it transforms your life.  

So, when I was contacted by my friends and colleagues in the California Association of School Counselors (CASC) to serve on the COVID-19 School Counseling Emergency Taskforce (C19-SCETF) to create a website to support counselors throughout the country during this pandemic, I immediately jumped on board.  Of course, I realized that this would be a daunting task, but I knew that if there was any group that could pull together and create an exceptional resource, it would be this team. Just to back up a little, this initiative started with an Opening Letter sent  to all CASC Members from our Executive Director on March 25th, just 9 days after many California schools had closed due to the warnings issued from our Governor.  In this letter, she informed members of the following actions that CASC had already done in that short period of time:  

  • Hosted emergency meeting of CASC Executive Council
  • Met with ASCA and other state school counseling leaders to share resources and concerns
  • Secured a website dedicated to Covid-19 concerns related to school counseling (TBA)
  • Designed a needs assessment to be distributed later this week to school counselors
  • Organized an Emergency Covid-19 Task Force in partnership with Wisconsin school counselor organization

A few days later, I joined about 50 other School Counseling Leaders from California and Wisconsin for the initial C19-SCETF meeting (via Zoom), where we established a vision and strategic plan for building a comprehensive website to serve school counselors during this pandemic.  Teams were formed for each major subsection of the website, including Mental Health, Law & Ethics, various School Levels (Elementary, Middle, High, Alternative Schools, and Graduate Students), College & Career, Special Populations (including Administrators & Caregivers), Stakeholders, and Professional Development.  The Chair of this Taskforce and the CASC Executive Director selected leads for each section and provided some initial framework within a shared drive for documents, links, and other resources to be placed.  And then, we all went to work!  

As the Mental Health Team leader, I quickly organized our first meeting and we worked diligently to decide on the main themes of our page.  We researched relevant, evidence-based content and resources, and gradually our page content came to life.  It was incredible to join together and collaborate with others who are so devoted to serving the mental health needs of students.  As we shared our thoughts, others would bounce back with wonderful suggestions and the pieces came together more effectively.  After we compiled our links and documents, and arranged a draft of our page design, I connected directly with the Chair of the C19-SCETF and our website builder, who was responsible for the actual design work and editing.  After she posted our initial draft, my team met again to review each section and then submitted revisions as needed.  It’s amazing to consider that within just a couple weeks of our initial Taskforce meeting, our page was fully formed and impressively comprehensive.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t also share that I was fortunate to serve on the High School Team as well, and found that experience just as inspiring.  Sadly, I felt like my contribution to the HS section was minimal in comparison to the Mental Health page, but I was blessed by the conversations I had with that leader, who offered such compassion and understanding for my own overwhelming journey through this time.  So, if I were to offer some advice to anyone taking on such a massive project, I’d encourage you to focus on one piece of the puzzle, rather than stretching yourself in too many directions at once.  

Some other key learning experiences from this venture would include the necessity for leadership, co-leaders, and faith in your team.  Every team member had such valuable contributions and it is so crucial to honor their expertise.  The mutual respect and passion for our work allowed for each of us to speak very openly about ideas, which encouraged wonderful brainstorming and refinement of our ideas.  And even if a suggestion wasn’t included in the plan, the dialog generated more recommendations.  Having section leaders was essential in presenting our portion to the Taskforce Chair and main web-builder, so rather than 50 different people sending revisions, there were only a handful.  Speaking of which, having only one webmaster was critical to ensure consistency in design and editing, although it is certainly an extremely cumbersome role.  

All that being said, the website was officially launched on 4/22/2020, and as of Friday, 4/24/2020, there were already over 23,000 views, which is certainly evident of the value and need for this kind of resource.  Our Executive Director and others have shared that we have received so many compliments on the site, not only from School Counselors, but School Psychologists and Administrators.  While it continues to be a work in progress, it is truly powerful to see the kind of magic that comes from pulling great minds together towards a common goal.  It is our hope that it will continue to be an invaluable website where school counselors seek out the best resources, even long after COVID-19 is behind us.  But, the key part of this journey that I hope will be a valuable take-away for everyone reading this, is the power and necessity of collaboration.  I can say with confidence that I never could have come up with such a comprehensive project on my own, and the same is true for all of us during this time of crisis.  So my encouragement to y’all is to reach out and build a collaborative team to share ideas and go through the struggle together.  Just like we tell our students, you are not alone!  

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