Counselors help students navigate social, emotional impacts of COVID-19

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Samantha Baumgartner

Marnie Carlson

Stacie Cooper

Bernice Fischels

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

For MFL MarMac staff like Samantha Baumgartner, working through the COVID-19 pandemic has been a roller coaster of emotions.

“It’s been both heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time,” reflected the middle school guidance counselor. “It has been heartbreaking to watch as students, staff and families grieve for the loss of the expectations and plans they had. It has personally been difficult to not be able to be greeted by the laughter and smiles in the hallway each day, or to be physically with students when they start to make progress on a goal or overcome a challenge. Yet, my heart has overflowed from the outpouring of support and creativity in our Bulldog community.”

Students are grappling with similar feelings of uncertainty and loss—loss of physical connections to friends, teachers and regular routines.

“We are all doing our best to figure out how to cope and continue with some learning and normalcy during a time that is anything but normal,” added elementary counselor Marnie Carlson. “But I think, in many ways, this time of school closure is hardest on the adults, and children are the most resilient and adaptable to its newness.” 

To help make it easier for students—and their families—to navigate these uncharted waters, the district’s counseling team has been reaching out in a variety of ways to ensure kids know they are loved and supported.

Soon after the school closure began, Carlson and guidance support staff member Stacie Cooper started recording social and emotional learning lessons for families to access on the district’s distance learning website. 

“Our goal was to help families focus on positive mental health to assist in keeping their bodies, minds and spirits healthy,” said Carlson.

Baumgartner also posts daily recorded social and emotional learning lessons on topics such as anxiety, grief and stress management, and shares wellness challenges onto a platform called SeeSaw. Students are able to record videos or reply with photos or voice recordings to each other. 

“This platform has allowed students to stay connected safely and I have been amazed at how much fun students are having responding to silly questions and kindness challenges,” Baumgartner said.

Activities are fun for the staff members too. In her personal guidance lessons for students in preschool through third grade, Carlson finally achieved her dream of bringing her Old English sheepdog Rosie to work. 

In “Home Days with Mrs. Carlson and Her Dog, Rosie,” Rosie “joins me for mini-lessons focused on self care during the school closure,” shared Carlson.

Additionally, at the McGregor Center, Cooper and Baumgartner are co-hosting “brunch bunches” and “lunch bunches” over Zoom weekly for each grade. During this time, students can jump on Zoom and participate in a class meeting similar to ones held during the school year. 

“The class meetings consist of a fun greeting students use to greet each other, discussion questions, an engaging community building activity and then sharing of a coping tool they can use,” explained Baumgartner.

Guidance staff are available on an individual basis—through email, phone and Zoom—as well.

“Each week,” said Baumgartner, “we are helping teachers reach out to each student in the building and have been able to remain in contact with many of the students we were working with prior to the closing. These efforts are being well-received by students and, each week, I have had a continued increase in the number of students requesting a personal check-in.”

At the high school, the business end has never stopped. Counselor Bernice Fischels has remained in contact with seniors regarding transcript and scholarship requests. Many other high school students are busy working on and finishing online or instructor-led college classes, and they’ll soon be scheduling fall classes. 

“Most high school students are in contact with myself or a teacher for these reasons,” Fischels said. “The study hall teachers are also contacting their students on a weekly basis. This contact info is recorded on a spreadsheet, and a wellness check is made during the contact. If a student is not heard from, Jackie McGeough, our student support advocate, or myself make a contact with parents or guardians.”

Aside from engaging with students, guidance staff have to keep up with the indirect work of the job too. According to Baumgartner, that includes finalizing grant reporting for mental health curriculum, adapting previous scheduling forms into interactive virtual registration forms, preparing virtual transition information for students going to a different building within the district, collaborating with teachers on professional development and leading staff workshops.

The counselors are also serving on MFL MarMac’s new “CommUNITY” Committee, which was created shortly after the initial closure to help lift the spirits of the local Bulldog communities. The group has used the school Facebook page to promote activities like spirit dress-up days, decorating windows with school spirit, a gratitude day and a virtual talent show. They are currently showcasing seniors with daily Facebook spotlights and reminders of upcoming events that will honor the class of 2020. 

“The group’s slogan is ‘Together even while we are apart,’” Carlson said. “That is what all of us at MFL MarMac have been trying to live by as we serve students and families from a distance during the pandemic.”

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