Wishing I Had A Crystal Ball: Predictions for a Chaotic Future
As one who has been accused of over-planning, the uncertainty with which I begin facing the start of the 2020-2021 school year is dizzying. I pride myself on things running smoothly because I afford significant attention to detail and anticipating possible “surprises”. That being said, I don’t know that anyone can imagine all the possible scenarios we may be facing this fall. But for me, one thing I can control is my planning, so here is a glimpse into the circles my mind has spun the past few weeks. While some of these decisions are out of our control, inspiring conversations around them is not.
What if we remain closed?
If school is unable to reopen in the Fall, there are several things school counselors need to consider - first, instruction in our standards and competencies. As most of us rely on instructional times from teacher colleagues, we need to have conversations about how our counseling content will be delivered and prioritized. We will need to develop additional online content as well as how to ensure students are completing it. Secondly, we need to evaluate our current practices around monitoring student academic achievement. At school, I can call students to my office to develop strategies for getting back on track. In this age of remote learning, despite our attempts to reach out, we can’t compel some students to answer the phone, respond to a text or email, or even answer a knock on their door. And in my experience, the longer we have been out of school, the same applies to contacting parents. Even some who communicated regularly in the first few weeks away have become unresponsive in recent weeks.
What if we reopen?
If the powers that be deem we are ready to reopen, this will come with potential downfalls as well. For example, all indications are that this will be determined at the state, or even more likely, the local level. How will we address the student mobility that will come with one district opening and the neighboring district remaining remote? How will we address the unique needs of our medically at-risk students? Or those families who simply refuse to send their children back to school until a vaccine is available? How will we modify our attendance policies to prioritize safety? How will we protect our staff members and what types of provisions will be in place for a staff member who becomes ill and/or needs to quarantine? Most districts are already facing a teacher shortage as well as a sub shortage, so creative solutions will have to be considered in advance.
What about a hybrid?
I personally believe this is the most likely scenario, meaning the school counselor’s role will be a key element in planning. For example, if instituting social distancing of 6 feet is required, consider class sizes. Most classrooms are already crowded. Consider taking some measurements now to determine the compliant capacity for each room. In some cases, this may well be less than half your current capacity. Many schools are considering some sort of student rotation where some students attend one day and a different group of students attend the next. Are your class numbers conducive to this model? Other schools are considering allowing attendance decisions at the individual level. While this is most likely only a practical option in larger schools where one instructor could be devoted to online instruction and another would handle the traditional classroom, it will obviously drastically impact schedules.
What other considerations exist regardless reopening?
Regardless of if/when/how we reopen in the fall, there are numerous areas considerations in all three of our domains for which school counselors should be preparing.
Social/Emotional: Without a doubt, we can anticipate an uptick in our mental health needs. For some, the stress of the isolation this Spring has overwhelmed their ability to cope. For others, those who have experienced loss during this time, hospital restrictions and the limits on gatherings prevented meaningful closure. There has been an increase in substance abuse and domestic violence during the quarantine period. There has been an increase in unemployment leading to an increase in the number of students living in poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity. What can we do to meet these needs?
Academic: There will undoubtedly be learning gaps due to the remote learning model we have employed for 2-3 months this year. How can we help identify and address those gaps to ensure students have the foundational skills to be successful in subsequent classes. For those who disengaged and failed to earn academic credits for the Spring semester, how will we assist those students in getting back on track in meeting both graduation requirements and relevant career preparation experience courses? We also await guidance from the state and national level regarding potential changes to graduation and testing requirements and need to prepare to help students hit the “new target”.
Career: Post-secondary options will likely all look different as well. For students planning to attend a traditional 4-year school to prepare for their future career, admission and even attendance requirements are being evaluated as schools transition to test optional and/or online learning. For students considering a 2-year program, restrictions may significantly limit the number of students who can enroll in a lab-based program. For those looking to directly enter the workforce, the unemployment rate will significantly impact their employability. Restrictions will also impact our ability to offer exploration programs for our students including workplace and campus visits, internships, and even college and career fairs.
Finally, we can expect education funding to be among the most unpredictable results of the pandemic. Additionally, we must consider the possibility we may lose students to virtual schools if they are uncomfortable returning to a brick and mortar setting. Budget cuts are inevitable, potentially impacting staffing. It is imperative that school counselors have data available to support your program outcomes in the event discussion about reducing the school counseling department begins. Having an outline of how you intend to address the unique post-pandemic needs your students and families will be facing will help move the discussion from “we can’t afford” to “we need to think creatively to fund” because we are a vital part of what is best for kids!