Austin High School counselor Lynn Keenan knows her seniors are grieving.

So much about senior year is about last hurrahs: Proms and graduation ceremonies, last band and choir concerts, spring sports and final good-byes to classmates. But none of those things happened for this year's high school seniors.

"They are grieving, and rightly so," Keenan said.

Just as it did for teachers and students, school counselors found their jobs dramatically altered by the global pandemic. When schools closed, counselors no longer could check on students' welfare through face-to-face meetings or hallway conversations.

Today they use Zoom or Google Meets to connect with students. And while technology has helped, it doesn't always bring that same sense of connection.

Austin High School School Counselor (contributed photo)
Austin High School School Counselor (contributed photo)

"We are all waiting for the day when we can go back to classes and being in school in person," Keenan said. "I talk to lots of kids, and I will tell you that 99.9 percent of them are realizing how grateful they were for the way school was before."

New tools

Counselors have a broad mandate, focused on students' emotional and social growth as well as their academic progress.

To do their job in today's environment, counselors have come to rely on new tech tools and resources, like online calming rooms. They are reaching out more aggressively on the phone when they sense trouble. They are also using age-old skills and abilities like their ability to empathize.

Keenan worries about her students. It's not just the idea of learning from home. Home life may be stressful, especially if a parent has lost a job or been furloughed. Some students struggled with mental health issues before the pandemic struck.

Keenan has two school-age children, and she has seen how they have responded to distance learning.

"My kids and the kids I've talked to said they felt like they were teaching themselves the content," she said.

Still, schools have sought to provide the closure that senior year is supposed to bring. At Austin, a cap-and-gown drive-through was held in front of the high school. When students rolled through to pick up the items, they were surprised to find the entire high school staff on the front lawn. Many students were crying by the time they reached the end of the line.

"That was wonderful," Keenan said. "We had a couple of kids who drove through twice."

Byron High School counselor Becky Martin said she feels bad for seniors. Many Byron seniors are eligible to graduate after the third quarter if they earn enough credits. But many decide to stay on so they can take a college-level course or participate in spring sports or just to conclude their high school career with their friends.

"They didn't get any of that," Martin said.

 Becky Martin counselor at Byron High School. (contributed photo)
Becky Martin counselor at Byron High School. (contributed photo)

Martin said one benefit of working at a small school like Byron is the ability to get to know students. By students' junior or senior year, counselors know those students pretty well. And one message they have emphasized during this time of social distancing is: Don't hesitate to reach out.

Red flags

A red flag for Byron counselors is when a typically strong student begins to struggle academically.

"When you connect with them, you realize that all these other things are going on," Martin said. "The isolation, the feeling of loss and anxiety about the world and what's going on and if their parents have a job or not."

Martin has discovered how much a simple phone call helps. When a student doesn't respond to emails or an invitation to meet virtually, she calls on the phone.

"They usually pick up," Martin said. "With students and parents, we've found that's an effective way. They're so thankful you called, and they open up. Their hope comes back."

Networking with counselors in other districts has been a critical part of Byron's response, she said. One innovation that the district borrowed from other schools was an online calming room. It's a website stuffed with meditations, music and other resources for students battling anxiety or depression.

Kasson-Mantorville Elementary School counselor Karen Besch said the district sends surveys to parents to see how their kids are doing. She said the great majority of parents say their child is happy or content. The next largest group are children who are frustrated with the current situation.

It's not an ideal situation, but counselors can still be effective, she said.

"Of course, we would much rather meet with them face-to-face," Besch said, "but at the same time, we can still be effective by being able to meet with them virtually. We're meeting them where they're at."