Closures haven’t stopped school counselors in Hall County and Gainesville from reaching their students.
Making phone calls, joining Zoom meetings and sending letters have taken the place of one-on-one interactions.
Julie Wheeler, social adjustment counselor at Gainesville High School, said she regularly reminds her students they are not alone during this time of social distancing.
“While we are not physically there in the brick and mortar right now, the same people who have been there to support you are still here,” Wheeler said. “It may not be a literal door right now, but the same open door policy we had in school still exists.”
Ally Diesch, counselor at McEver Arts Academy, has made an effort over the past two weeks to send her elementary students uplifting snail mail.
“I want to encourage them by sharing something simple like a postcard, letting them know they are loved and telling them how awesome I think they are,” Diesch said. “I really miss them.”
Tamara Etterling, Hall’s director of student services, said the system’s counselors also spend their time finding the students who have fallen behind during the shift to online learning.
She said most of the time those students either don’t have access to the internet, share a device with their siblings, complete their tasks over the weekend or purposefully choose not to do their school work.
In addition to daily calls and video chats, counselors in Hall and Gainesville have also delivered Chromebooks, food, books and lesson materials to homes.
“We’re checking in on those kids to make sure we are not only meeting their needs academically but socially and through mental health,” Etterling said.
With the fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Etterling said counselors are seeing a surge in anxiety and depression among students.
“In the high schools we have a lot of those,” she said. “They’re worried about their grades and GPA.”
Diesch said many of her fifth graders are experiencing grief over missing their last days of elementary school.
“Other students find their safe place at school, their love, their support,” she said. “Many students are lonely and sad, which is why I try even harder to connect with kids. Kids are also resilient and creative, and I know we will all get through this together.”
To help with stress reduction, Diesch said some counselors have shared simple techniques like breath exercises and muscle relaxation via the social learning platform FlipGrid.
Like every Gainesville and Hall employee, Wheeler is having to adjust to a new normal.
Wheeler said she firmly believes Gainesville High School will be able to continue effectively supporting its students, regardless of how long school buildings are closed.
“As the days go by, the students seem to be getting more and more comfortable with the new virtual approach to counseling and support,” she said. “We had worked to build very strong relationships with our students prior to recent events, and those foundations have in part allowed for a smoother transition and ongoing practices.”
If Diesch could give one piece of advice to students struggling with their mental health amid the pandemic, she would tell them to “reach out to someone you trust who can help you.”
“You are not alone in your struggle,” Diesch said. “Practice calming strategies like mindfulness, muscle relaxation and exercise. Connect with the people you love and care about through the phone or internet.”
If you, or someone you know is in crisis, call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 800-715-4225.