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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

School Counselors Worry Remote Learning Leaves At-Risk Students Vulnerable

Empty school classroom

It’s been six weeks since the coronavirus pandemic shifted Montana’s public school districts to remote and online learning, and some school counselors are struggling to check in with students. Counselors say the lack of daily face-to-face interactions may prevent some from getting the help they need.

Lee Starck is the K-4 counselor for Stevensville Public Schools. He said he hasn’t been able to get in touch with roughly 10 of his students, many of them high-risk. That could refer to a range of situations, from food insecurity at home to chronic behavioral issues.

Starck said these students’ families may be experiencing rough circumstances as Montana’s coronavirus outbreak, and the resulting economic shutdown, unfolds.

“Those situations, I think, have maybe gotten worse because there's chronic stress, there might be financial insecurity, there might be all of these other factors that are increasing the stress in the household," he explained.

Because Starck serves such a young student population, he’s been largely dependent on parents for contact. That doesn’t always happen. He worries students already living in potentially neglectful and abusive homes are not getting the help they need to process what’s going on during the pandemic. It's difficult for Starck to not know what the students he’s trying to connect with are experiencing.

“Having that unsettling feeling, I just have to wrestle with this idea: Is it just unsettling because I am really uncomfortable with it, or is it, you know, an accurate depiction?" he said. "Am I feeling this feeling in my gut because it’s there and is actually happening?”

The Montana School Counselor Association and the Montana Office of Public Instruction have been holding statewide discussions with school counselors at all grade levels to share how everyone is serving students remotely.

Montana School Counselor Association Assistant Chairperson Renee Schoening said Starck’s experience is happening across the state, and students are not receiving the same level of emotional support post-pandemic.

“That's been very difficult, doing that remotely," she said.

Schoening is also an elementary school counselor in Deer Lodge. She said it’s usually teachers who notice red flags like major changes in a student’s behavior and appearance, or signs of abuse like bruises. That information is usually forwarded on to counselors.

“And then there's just those disclosures that happen when you're in the office with a student one-on-one, where they are with a trusted adult and they say, ‘Hey, guess what happened to me?’” Schoening said.

Those private conversations are now hard to have, according Schoening, especially when counselors don’t know if someone's in the room during a video or phone call, or whether parents might be checking their email. She and others like Glendive middle school counselor Sherri Nissley have noticed students are less forthcoming with remote communication. It makes it harder to see the typical red flags.

“I get a lot of, 'I’m doing great, things are fine,'" she explained. "You know, usually when we’re in school, you’re busy as a school counselor. You constantly have kids wanting to come in and meet with you and address, problem solve, and stress management, and all of that. So that is something that I’m seeing less of, and it does concern me.”

Counselors believe limited contact is leading to a lack of student-reported information, and a drop in calls to the Montana Department of Health and Human Service’s child abuse and neglect hotline.

Calls to the hotline fell roughly 50% shortly after school doors closed in mid-March, according to state health officials. Nissley has seen more of her colleagues report education neglect to DPHHS when they haven’t been able to contact students.

“So hopefully they can at least make well-child checks on them, and make sure that they’re ok,” she added.

Hotline calls have increased slightly every week in April, DPHHS said, leading to more welfare checks on children by law enforcement. Weekly calls are still below the average for July when school isn’t in session, however.

Some school counselors hope Gov. Steve Bullock’s phased reopening could provide districts more options to connect with students. Districts can partially or fully reopen their doors on May 7, providing potential for in-person contact. Even if school doors remain closed, the state's reduced social distancing guidelines could allow for home visits. The Office of Public Instruction is currently preparing guidance for districts working out how they will serve students as the reopening unfolds.

Counselors, including Stevensville's Lee Starck, expect higher demand for counseling services when students walk back into school buildings, though it’s hard to say what kind of struggles they may be helping their students through.

“And not knowing what was on top of this already pretty big event, this traumatic thing that everyone is going through," he said. "What did they individually experience, and helping them process through that and work through that.”

The effects of this pandemic's remote learning is being layered on top of data showing more Montana students have been struggling with mental health in recent years. According to the state’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the percentages of students having thoughts of suicide or feelings of hopeless are on the rise.

No matter what students are facing, Starck said, he and other counselors are gearing up to touch base with all of them when schools reopen, whether that's this spring or next fall.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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