For Lexi Gramlow, the uncertainty of the coming months has amped up her anxiety and deepened her depression. The Wayzata High School junior usually meets with friends to de-stress, but that’s had to change because of COVID-19.
Much of her professional support now comes at a distance, but she’s grateful it’s still there. In addition to online therapy appointments, she’s been able to continue her weekly conversations with her school counselor, Jennifer Landy, via video calls.
“Having that connection to her has really improved my mental state,” Gramlow said. “If I’m having a particularly rough day, I can still shoot her an e-mail or make an appointment.”
School counselors across metro area districts are working to find ways to connect with students from afar. Video appointments and virtual calming rooms — web pages that include meditations, yoga exercises, puzzles and links to relaxing music — have proved popular.
The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district is offering “Mindful Mental Health Minute Mondays” with weekly mindfulness tips, and many schools are providing parents with resources for talking with their children about mental and emotional health. Some schools are also having each student rate their stress level each morning when they log in for attendance. Counselors then follow up with those who expressed that they were struggling.
“We know that this whole experience of a pandemic can bring out a lot of additional anxiety and trauma for students,” said Jill Miklausich, the principal at John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood. “We are making sure we are regularly checking in with students that [counselors] would normally meet with.”
Miklausich said school staff are having to check their e-mails often to make sure they can quickly coordinate a response for students in crisis. Many schools are also having to repeat messages to students unaccustomed to using e-mail.
“In a normal school year, those kids are coming up to us in the halls or coming in for check-ins,” she said. “It can feel like the response now is more clunky and sometimes less efficient because it takes multiple steps.”
Counselors are also working to connect with seniors, making sure they are on track to graduate and helping them make and adapt plans for after graduation. School staff are hearing from several seniors who just need to vent about the disappointment of not having the final semester they expected.
“It’s been hard for students to know that those moments like prom and graduation will look different from what they always wanted them to be,” said Derek Francis, manager of counseling services for Minneapolis Public Schools. “With all of this, it’s about validating them and letting them know those feelings are normal.”
Parents are also seeking that reassurance through the schools. A social worker in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district was working with anxious students when she got a note from a parent. “I’m just as anxious as my child and I need support, too,” the parent said.
“We’re hearing over and over again that this is not only about supporting our students, it’s about supporting the family units and parents through this time of uncertainty,” said Janet Fimmen, the director of special education for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools.
Counselors are also asking and hearing more about student home life than they did before distance learning, Landy said. She’s been working with several students, including Gramlow, about how to work through family tension stemming from having everyone under one roof 24/7.
“I probably always touched on conversation about home life, but that’s now one of the biggest factors in their environment and success,” she said. “I’m getting new insight into these students and getting to know them in such a different way now.”
According to a Star Tribune survey, 60% of the children who said they saw a counselor or social service worker before the pandemic said they have been able to maintain that communication.
Landy and another counselor, Jessica Dahlman, built a virtual calming room based on one they’d seen from the Osseo school district. It’s proved popular with students, teachers and parents alike.
“Oftentimes, if kids were having a tough day, they could come to our office and we’d have toys they could fidget with or pages they could color,” Landy said. “We had to figure out how we could provide some of that virtually.”
Lyreshia Ghostlon-Green, a senior at Wayzata High School, said Landy has helped her embrace and process the sadness and frustration that has come from missing out on theater performances and even college orientation — she’ll complete a virtual orientation this summer for Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she plans to study acting.
She’s talking to Landy once a week about everything from college financial aid to coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression.
“This is a lot of time for us to be on our phones and get stuck in our heads and that’s not good for our mental health,” Ghostlon-Green said. “It’s definitely harder right now but counselors have made an effort to let us know they are there.”
Still, there’s something lost without the face-to-face interaction, Ghostlon-Green said, and it can be hard to find a private place to talk at home.
“The vibes are just off,” she said. “I would much rather be sitting across from her.”
Francis, the manager of counseling services for Minneapolis schools, said the success of the student-counselor interaction is dependent on a relationship built over time, whether the conversation is about school performance, college applications or mental health.
“The magic happens in the office and in the hallways,” he said. “It’s about those natural human interactions and face time. ... That’s looking a lot different right now.”