Personalizing the Pivot: How Counseling In Schools Made “Virtual” Into “Actual”

How Counseling In Schools succeeded in keeping community at the core during COVID.

Personalizing the Pivot: How Counseling In Schools Made “Virtual” Into “Actual”

Personalizing the Pivot: How Counseling In Schools Made “Virtual” Into “Actual”

Katherine Potts  

Hey everyone, welcome back to Awakin. This is your host, Kat Potts, and I’m back here with Kevin Dahill-Fuchel . Hey, Kevin. Glad to have you back. Today we’re going to be talking about the story of the pivot and how Counseling In Schools was able to pivot to going from in-person to virtual. And there are a couple of different buckets here. There’s the emotional toll it takes; there’s the productivity toll, and technology privilege.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Those are the big ones. The first thing that comes to mind is just the space we work in and the people who work for Counseling In Schools. There’s a sense that we’re prepared for a lot. If you work in a school environment, providing social and emotional support services, no one day looks like any other. So there’s certainly a sense that as an organization, as a staff, we are not sitting in some very rigid routines. We’re always responding to what our clients are experiencing. And while we were all experiencing the pandemic, I think none of us left the idea that the students, the families, and the communities that we work with were at a different level of peril, being isolated and disconnected. We wanted to ensure that we did not let go of those relationships, that we maintained that connection and didn’t just sink into disconnection. I felt that from across our organization, there was a compelling need to stay engaged. Do not lose connection.

Katherine Potts  

Some people may argue that this pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime thing that we might experience. But it also raises the question, what do we prioritize? The connection is the most significant thing, and if you’re focusing on the connection, then what does that mean for all these other buckets of concern?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

I would say that relationship building and connectivity were some of the more significant elements of what we’re there to do anyway. For so many families, students, and communities, there’s a real sense that they are invisible or just disconnected from what the mainstream of our society is doing. Working with students and families in communities like that, we want to build those connections to say; you’re not invisible, you’re here; where is your voice? What is your experience? Let’s make sure that you’re a part of the equation. So, when the pandemic hit, it was even more of that. I think that COVID-19 did not create a lot of scenarios. It just made it impossible for us not to see them. Whereas before, so many situations were so easily dismissed or made invisible or put off by blaming people or thinking, “I’m spared of those problems because I have earned this kind of thing.”

Katherine Potts  

I think privilege came to the forefront because there are times when things that, for some people, can be out of sight out of mind. But then some children and families don’t have access to the internet to get in touch with who they need, or they don’t have laptops or computers for school.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Right, and it was relevant in a real way before the pandemic. A lot of New York City public schools are using web-based systems to send homework home, send messages to parents and give parents access to various events that are coming up; all of these things are happening through the internet. And certain students were constantly struggling with that. Students living in temporary housing, where a lot of the buildings that are used as temporary housing facilities do not have internet. So those students were always in this analog space where everybody else was digitally working. And they were left behind, or getting the information but not in the same way or as efficiently as everybody else. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t there. But again, it wasn’t lifted up. 

Katherine Potts  

What if someone didn’t have access to those things? Or can’t afford that? 

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Right. And they existed then. They exist now. Many of us thought that maybe it was a concern of some folks or government entities, but it was, “yeah, we’ll get to that, we’ll get to that.” Covid put issues in front of everybody and said, you now have to deal with all of this

So for us at Counseling at Schools, there were already relationships that we had built, which meant that we had working phone numbers for people because we weren’t reliant on the internet for our connections with them. And we’ve had lots of communication. When school systems or other teachers or folks were saying, “I don’t know where this person is, and I don’t know if they’re okay, and how do we find out? They’re not emailing me.” Well, they probably aren’t emailing anybody. We immediately connected all of our staff, asking, How can we be in touch? And that was the start of being able to do some of the work of finding out who needs these resources and how we connect them to those things.

Katherine Potts  

Did you have to change what your goals were? Or were you in the middle of working on things that had to pause because now you have this direct experience to address?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Absolutely. Everybody wanted the same outcomes, but the initial goal was the connection. Something that changed right away is that we were in the midst of a lot of work with many different schools on capacity building with their staff to be able to relate to their students. We made sure those teachers could be in touch with us. The city canceled all of our contracts to do teacher training, yet teachers were reaching out to us, desperate because they didn’t know how to stay connected with students who were going through something difficult, and they wanted to support them. So relatively quickly, we got a grant, and within about six weeks, we had developed a website for teachers called Partners In Healing, where they were able to provide exercises and activities both for teachers and for their virtual classrooms that they could implement some of the practices that we would have done had we been in person. But our work with students and families went from some of the things they were most engaged in to suddenly being about getting people connected to resources, whether the internet or food. We made a lot of food connections. We started a partnership with an organization called Everest Effect, which was set up to provide resources in areas with some kind of natural disaster. So they had this great distribution network that was able to deliver these packages that we could send out to students and families that would have things like art supplies for kids to use or physical fitness things. Or in the beginning, wipes and disinfectants and just basics. We could tap into that and send people the Lysol and all of the things that were being hoarded at the very beginning.

Katherine Potts  

You brought up a really good point around the physical activity portion. We’re talking about kids in middle, elementary, or high school who now can’t get that physical activity that they need. And now, that’s another bucket. What would be some activities that facilitate that?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

One of our dance and movement therapists did a whole thing for what you could do while sitting in a chair or just within the same space occupied by a chair. Because we also know that the apartments that some students live in, it’s not like they’re going to pull over their peloton and go for a ride. The younger age group was the one that we thought a lot about also. Sometimes they have toys and stuff around the house. But, you know, parents had to work and so now maybe an older child was watching a younger child in the home all day, whereas maybe they were used to doing that for an hour or two at a time. We needed resources for those situations too.

Katherine Potts  

That’s a big emotional burden on a kid to be in an environment where they’re having to do that and play a role they may not necessarily need to be playing. But it brings to mind how many companies used the pandemic as an opportunity to advertise things that generally only middle or upper-middle class people could afford, like Peleton. You might now have kids exposed to all these things they can’t even have.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

That’s always the case, but there was so much more. And there’s a lot of concern about the marketing of things to young kids that might be able to afford it, but also the impact on who couldn’t and what they would do. So we found that great success and being able to send things in the mail. When you get a package in the mail, when you’re not used to getting a packet in the mail, it’s kind of cool, right? A box of stuff for me. It was simple things that made a difference. These were not the things that they’re watching advertised on television. Still, for a middle school kid, there was an exercise band, a puzzle, or different things they could just get engaged in. There would be a little bit of instruction. Tune into this video and look at this and look at that. So you still know that, hey, someone’s out there, thinking about me, and this gives me something to do, and it’s taking the burden off of parents to figure it out. And when you’re not connected to the internet, or at the very beginning, there were many challenges for even those Google classrooms or Zoom platforms to work, even when you had the connection. Families would get discouraged because they would not have a class all day.

Katherine Potts  

And there’s no timeline. How do we stay connected for X amount of time? What does that look like? How do we keep coming up and continue to be innovative? What I’m taking away from what you’re saying is prioritizing connection to be at the center. But then some of it is just being aware. You all were aware of how important that connection is to feel seen.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

That’s such a core message for Counseling In Schools. And when I think about the concept of pivot, we thought a lot about what it meant to pivot. And when you do pivot, you have a focal point. You pivot from a place. It’s not just a crazy movement. And I think that that connectivity, that point of connection, was our center point. If we had that, we were going to figure out the rest. We needed to stay connected to that core of relationship and connectivity.

Katherine Potts  

You made a point earlier: it hasn’t changed that families are struggling in many ways. But we’ve learned how important that connection is in getting on the same page with schools and meeting in the middle like that. You can’t have counseling and support be isolated from trying to learn and educate.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Right. I think that that awareness expanded. We have children with multiple family members who died from COVID. We have young people who were living with grandparents who then were not going to live with grandparents because of concern for the virus, or they were separated. We worked with a family where a young girl switched from living with her father to a grandparent because her father worked in a hospital. He was needed daily in the hospital and didn’t want to come home and expose his daughter. So for her safety, she had to move from that experience to live with an extended family member. That was really traumatic for her. She had had some history with the extended family that not many knew about, which was really hard for her. That’s a big deal. So there were these displacements and replacements and things that people thought, Well, you do what you got to do. But the impact in that particular case got intense for that young woman, and we were able to support her through that. The family and the father, and everybody were able to come together and figure out an even better solution, or at least she felt heard in this scenario. Still, we don’t know how many countless similar things that people went through. We wanted to center ourselves in those relationships so that we could see what was happening. 

I don’t want to lose the point that COVID did turn up the volume on all of these things. It just didn’t create them in a way that sometimes I fear assume it did. I fear that if we go to a COVID-free environment at some point, then the idea would be well, that’s over, we can go back to the way things were. The silver lining here, if there is one, is that these needs and these things were there before, and they’re going to need as many resources when COVID is gone as they do now. So let’s get this formula. Let’s get the resources and distribution right. Let’s figure out the pivots, anything else that needs to happen, and the equity issues in place. Because if we do find our way out of this pandemic, then I want to be able to move forward with some advancement for everybody, not regress to where we were before, just waiting for the next challenge to come and exacerbate itself into the most vulnerable communities again.