Marylin Garcia and Tracy Ishimaru can testify that students sometimes tell time by the next email they send.
Garcia and Ishimaru are counselors at South Pasadena High School, and since students were forced to retreat to their homes last March because of the pandemic, communication between them and their students has sometimes evolved into emailing questions when they come up.
And oh, do they come up at the oddest times.
B.C. — before COVID-19 — the five academic counselors at SPHS would have scheduled appointments with the 290 students they each follow through their high school career. This seemed like a lot of people to me, but Assistant Principal Janet Wichman said that counselors in some schools follow more than 400 students.
If a student had a question, he or she could line up during a meal break, or counselors and student might meet briefly on campus.
How times have changed.
“Boundaries used to be usually between 8 a.m.-4 p.m.,” Garcia said. “Now there are no boundaries. I’m getting emails late into the night and on weekends. You just have to make adjustments. Sometimes I find myself running into another room to answer an email.”
And now it’s not just students doing the asking. It’s also the parents, who might send emails when they get home from work.
“The parents — if they think of a question — they shoot us an email,” Ishimaru said. “Students sometimes will be sending us emails at 2 a.m. I know I’m up earlier trying to answer the messages that come in.”
The counselors know that whatever the time sent, a question needs an answer as soon as possible.
The two counselors aren’t complaining. They are just stating a change in their jobs since the pandemic upended the school year last March. It almost seemed like an exaggeration when I first heard about the change in communication times and methods between student and counselor.
Talking to two SPHS seniors proved to me that having a question pop into a teenager’s mind is a 24-hour process, and they are not shy about asking those questions — regardless of the time.
“I’d ask if my counselor had heard of a certain college and if it might be a good fit for me,” said student Olivia Reed, who said that she has sent emails as late — er, as early — as 4 a.m. with a question about filling out an application form. She said she got an answer the same day.
“Whereas meetings might have been short sometimes when we were in school, now I can send a quick email,” Reed added.
Sebastian Pollard said he sometimes sends his emailed questions to his counselor, Garcia, before he goes to bed at 11 p.m. or midnight.
He recalled one occasion when a school “wait-listed” him (put him on a waiting list) and he wanted to know how to tell the school he was still interested in attending.
Some students and parents would rather have phone calls than emails, and the topics range from technology to stress to getting ready for college. Some students and even the counselors enjoy the more personal — and uninterrupted — nature of the calls.
Another change for students is getting ready for college. Standardized tests are less of a factor, or even none at all.
“We’ve got a whole new frontier in dealing with getting students ready for applying. We have to take a more holistic approach. We’re moving in a new direction,” Garcia said.
Visits by college representatives are virtual and some sessions are now in the evenings, at a more convenient time for parents. Wichman said that having sessions that better fit moms’ and dads’ schedules is a change that might survive the end of the pandemic.
Counselors are still doing the job they always did in helping students fill out applications and go over essays which accompany many forms. They also are keeping scheduled meetings each student has during the year.
“The counselors provide continuity for students during the pandemic,” Wichman said. “They are a familiar face and contact even to the students new to SPHS. They help with academics but also connect students with the appropriate social emotional resources. They are transitioning to a ‘new normal’ and are demonstrating flexibility in working with students and parents through new platforms such as virtual meetings and presentations.”
Then, there is concern with the stress of a new environment — a factor for teachers as well as their students.
The counselors aren’t just interacting with students during this time. They are also working with the teachers — sometimes to help them with their own stress and other times to help them develop strategies for this new environment.
“Teachers seek support and collaboration whether we’re in a pandemic or not,” Ishimaru said. “It’s a systematic support that we have at the high school because it truly takes a village for students to be successful.”
If their ongoing support for students is needed or if there is need for crisis intervention, the school has a part-time social worker and extensive resources are provided for teachers, students and parents.
“If the teachers themselves are going through some anxiety or stress, I listen to them and we talk about what might help them with what is going on, whether that is just to be a sounding board for their thoughts or if they need more comprehensive support,” Ishimaru said.
New situations keep popping up, and the counselors have to keep their virtual thumbs on the pulse of the school. Freshman teachers have recently noticed that younger students are not totally connected to the school, Ishimaru said. The counselors have been working to bond with students and staff, which they hope will lower stress and build that needed connection with the school.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, students have mixed feelings about all the time they spend on virtual learning. Reed said she may be in the minority when it comes to virtual learning, but she likes the fact that she can “roll out of bed and in two minutes I’ll be in class.” It also saves her time getting ready for her after-school job.
Pollard isn’t as enamored — and his answer illustrates yet another situation for the counselors and teachers to deal with during the pandemic.
“It’s difficult staring at the screen all day,” he said. “It gets exhausting after a while. It’s like everything is going in a loop. Every day, it’s the same thing.
“You are less engaged and you just want to get through it,” Pollard added.
The counselors’ experience might not sound all that different.
“Some days it seems like I am on the computer screen all the time,” Garcia said.
“It sometimes feels like I am carrying my laptop wherever I go,” Ishimaru said.
Editor’s note: The SPHS wellness site can be reached at sphstigers.org under Academics>Guidance & Counseling>Virtual Health and Wellness Website. A direct link is sites.google.com/spusd.net/sphswellnesscenter.