With schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, high school counselors are in a strange position: They need to keep tabs on their students, but they’re forced to do so from afar. And when it comes to underserved youth, the situation is even more difficult.
Alejandra “Ali” Cortes, MA, MFTI, is the Clinical Youth Outreach Worker for the Santa Barbara Unified School District, primarily working with at-risk adolescents and teens. Recently, she shared her thoughts on how she’s helping her students cope amid this strange time of COVID-19.
What was your job description, before COVID-19?
I wore – and still wear – many different hats. I administered one-on-one therapy, case management, needs assessments, therapeutic groups, follow-ups, and community engagement.
In a nutshell, my job is to build a relationship and a rapport with youth, so I can fill whatever needs they’re lacking. Sometimes that means creating protective factors around them as much as possible, with what we have on hand. Other times that means providing referrals. I’m proud to be part of a network of excellent service providers that I often collaborate with to facilitate a warm handoff.
How has the pandemic changed the way you do your job?
Pre-COVID, my schedule was very structured. Every day I was at a specific school, at certain times. Now, my schedule has been forced to become much more flexible. When I ask a teen what their availability is, I’ll just take whatever I can get. And of course, due to social-distancing requirements, we’re doing everything virtually. We conduct calls, groups, and check-ins via Zoom, or whatever method is easiest for the students – even Facetime, phone call, or text. Not all students have Internet at home or a bandwidth that allows for distance learning without interruption. Especially underserved youth. Some youth are also taking care of their siblings, who are home from school and need supervision. So now, we understand the importance of just reaching out, whatever way we can.
Tell us what your therapeutic groups look like now.
I still continue my “Wonder Woman Workshop” every Tuesday and Thursday at noon (for students of the Santa Barbara Unified School District), which focuses on self-care and coping skills to mitigate mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression.
Whereas the group used to be over an hour, now it’s 45 minutes, at most. Attention spans are low on Zoom. So we try to keep things light and fun, and maintain a fast pace. We bring in positive guest speakers, do a bit of meditation, maybe an exercise workout or interactive game, and try to sprinkle in some practical stress-relieving tips throughout. It’s not a time for long speeches. I’ll use simple metaphors, make it engaging.
The message I give them is that taking even just five or 10 minutes of time for self-care every day is important. And in fact, many of my students have adopted coping tools like meditation or breathing exercises when they’re feeling stressed. Others are taking our advice to connect with mentors, which we always, always encourage. With all the self-isolation these teens are experiencing, we really need them to connect with trusted adults that they have relationships with.
Why is connecting with an adult so important?
When teens vent to each other, they usually get stuck in an endless loop of negativity. On the other hand, adult mentors, like youth outreach workers, usually bring a more positive perspective to the situation. We’re hopeful, we look to the future, we inspire, and we problem solve. This is why we’re often called “peddlers of hope.” We also bust myths and share facts. Just the other day, during group, I reminded everyone that their schools have offered a new, optional grading system of “pass or no pass” versus a letter grade. So many of my teens had no idea about this. They were relieved.
Teens are naturally looking to the adults in their life to guide them, and help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. One of my students reminded me of this, that youth are naturally resilient. She said, “We can withstand a lot. We just need the adults to stay strong, too.” I thought this was very poignant.
How do you make teens feel comfortable opening up to you virtually?
It’s definitely a bit harder. In fact, we know that Child Welfare Services (CWS) reports in our area have decreased significantly. That’s probably not because there’s less abuse occurring, but because there are less opportunities to talk to adults in private.
This also makes it challenging to address mental health. We’re not in their schools anymore, so we don’t have the same confidential spaces for them to come and talk. Not every teen has their own room or a quiet place for them to speak in private. I once had a Facetime call with a teen who was sitting under the table, because that was the only place she could find some peace and quiet. Before, if I was addressing some trauma, or asking about their day, my office at school allowed for candid, open talk. Now, we’re a bit limited, because Mom or Dad or a sibling is right there in the home too.
And when a student does get a bit of privacy, it’s often frustrating when there’s poor Internet connection…the screen freezes, or there are delays in response. So our deep, one-on-one sessions are currently on pause during COVID while we focus on psychoeducation groups and more frequent check-ins.
Even during groups, I realize that some teens, especially girls, feel self-conscious watching themselves talk on video. Watching yourself talk can get in the way of expressing how you really feel or even engaging in the topic altogether. So if that’s the case, I tell them just to show me their face in the beginning, and then turn off video. A lot of teens don’t like to see themselves but want to show that they’re present, so they’ll point the camera up to the ceiling. But to maintain interactive engagement, I will ask them just to raise their hand (either their real hand or Zoom’s virtual hand) or give me the thumbs-up emoji when I ask for feedback.
I’m also really keen on using my students’ names a lot during group. It makes them feel more engaged and promotes further interaction.
During these virtual groups and check-ins, are you still able to notice stress or problems when you’re not face to face?
Sure. There is one benefit to video calls: they offer a little glimpse of the student’s life, their home environment. Sure, they might try to hide what could be going on. They’ll go into a corner, or they’ll know what background to show. But I’ll try notice the little things. I’ll take note of their affect. I pay attention to their attire. And I’m always on the lookout for facial cues. If their eyes are darting while they’re speaking to me, or their tone of voice is lower than usual, I assume their parents or siblings are right there and they don’t really want to speak openly.
Often, when I start the conversation off by asking how the student is feeling, nine times out of 10 the answer will be a neutral “good.”
So then I respond, “What if you weren’t allowed to use the word ‘good’? What would you say instead?”
That’s when the real answers come out. “I’m angry. Overwhelmed. Frustrated.”
In general, what are the parents’ reactions to all your efforts?
They truly appreciate it. These days, and especially with the population I work with, I think parents can use as much help as their teens can. Many still need to go to work, or are experiencing economic stress. So I think they appreciate the emotional support I’m providing right now. Oftentimes, the teens go back to their parents with what they learned with me over at group: stress-relieving techniques, the importance of self-care, even just myth-busting PSAs about the coronavirus.
In what way has the situation impacted your students academically?
Well, one silver lining is that many students who were struggling previously are now doing much better academically. They can just look at the homework online, do the assignments listed, and that’s it. They don’t have to sit through so much class, they don’t have to even travel. Which, for us counselors, means we now have broader options as to what might work for these teens in the future. Online, we can track their progress a bit faster too, which means we have real-time information on how the student might be coping.
At the same time, as I mentioned before, there’s an equity issue with our education tools. Not every teen has access to a fast Internet connection that allows for smooth Zoom meetings, or even Internet at all.
What message would you give to other youth outreach workers or service providers you work with?
Our goal is to help all our students adjust as best as they can to the new situation. The problem is, we often don’t have clear answers ourselves, in this uncertain time. And it’s okay to communicate that. It’s okay to share that you don’t have all the solutions.
Also, no one likes seeing youth suffer, and one of the risks of our job is getting too entrenched and wanting to pull them out of their situation and take them under your wing. But we can’t do that. We need to stand back, while cheering them, on so they can tell their stories, themselves.