We are just over a year into a pandemic that has already caused radical shifts and rifts in our society and our profession. Since it started, some of our profession’s unsung heroes that you don’t often hear enough about are our school counselors. This team, often a small group in a school, have been quietly trying to hold things together for the sake of our students, our staff, and our families.

Have you checked in on your school counselor lately to make sure they are OK?

In a “normal” year, counselors have a heavy workload. They advise students on academics and post-secondary planning. They engage with students in career exploration and development. They help them through issues related to equity, gender equity, discrimination, bias, and conflict.

They bridge the gap between home and school, leading to positive school-family-community partnerships. They assist students with disabilities. They focus on mental health and support students who have or are experiencing trauma or other hardships. They play a pivotal role in a school’s multi-tiered systems of support approach. They help students who are in crisis for any number of reasons.

In many schools, they are a first stop for identifying any student's social or emotional needs and then advocating for them. They did all of this before the pandemic, yet the pandemic has magnified and expanded their role and their need by students at large. By and large, they report that they are overwhelmed as a profession and need our help.

According to this recent new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a survey of nearly 950 school counselors shows how the pandemic has impacted their ability to do their job. It suggests the following:

  • Counselors were not able to spend as much time as usual working directly with students on social-emotional issues, post-secondary planning, and career development. Counselors reported that they often filled logistical or administrative needs and that, while critical, this infringed on their ability to connect with students.
  • Counselors reported that they often lacked clear direction from school and district leadership.
  • Counselors reported that they were rarely involved in COVID-19 school planning.

In thinking about how school leaders can assist their school counselors, the authors of the report offered the following strategies:

  1. Articulate a vision for counseling and define expectations with input from the counseling staff.
  2. Prioritize counselors' time with students and take flexible and creative approaches as needed.
  3. Ensure counselors have access to resources and supports to adapt to supporting students in this new environment.

School leaders must be mindful not to overload school counselors, and they must also do what they can to ensure they have adequate staffing to meet the needs and demands of the school counseling program.

This recent Associated Press article noted an alarming trend that there are inequities in school counselor-to-student ratios in many schools. According to the article, the poorest districts are often hit the hardest by this trend.

“There is one guidance counselor for every 350 students in high school in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city where three quarters of the students in the low-income district are Black or Hispanic. That compares with much smaller ratios in neighboring, largely white Fairfield County communities including 1 for every 220 in Greenwich, 206 in Darien and 162 in Weston, according to federal data.”

This example is supported by national statistics. According to a national 2019 report by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), “high school counselors who serve predominantly students of color attend to 34 more students than others.” The report went on to suggest that “schools serving the most students from low-income families tend to have fewer counselors.”

The ASCA recommends that schools maintain a ratio of 250 students per school counselor, and that school counselors spend at least 80% of their time working directly with or indirectly for students. Many schools are unable to maintain this ratio. We need to do better, especially for students of color and those from low-income families. They need our assistance the most, whether we are in a global pandemic or not. We can do better, and we must do better, for the sake of our children.