cowichan school counsellor
Mary Kirchner, a counsellor at Frances Kelsey Secondary School, offers advice for supporting children through the pandemic. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse
Cowichan Valley

Cowichan school counsellor reflects on a challenging spring

And, heading into summer, here's Mary Kirchner's advice on supporting kids.

Usually by March, students and their families have long settled into a routine. Bus schedules, in-class instruction, after-school activities, homework, regular bedtimes. Routines can be a grind, but experts say that the stability they provide is important.

Starting with a Spring Break that lasted a month and felt even longer, the disruption to these routines caused by COVID-19 has had a significant impact on many students, according to Mary Kirchner, a counsellor at Frances Kelsey Secondary. She recently spoke to The Discourse Cowichan about how the school worked to help students and their families manage these impacts. 

How did school counsellors adapt to the pandemic?

The teachers at Frances Kelsey worked long hours trying to connect with all students, and at team meetings identified individuals for the school’s counsellors to follow up with, Kirchner says. 

Just as teachers pivoted to provide remote learning, school counsellors had to adjust the ways they worked with students. For the first time, Kirchner provided online counseling via Zoom and did phone calls with students and sometimes their families. But even before schools partially reopened in June, she also did a fair amount of “walk and talk” counselling for students who came to school.

In addition to children of essential workers, there were vulnerable students invited into the building in April and May for their wellbeing, Kirchner explains. For some of these students, it wasn’t possible for them to speak with her confidentially from home, says Kirchner, who explains that the pandemic increased trauma within some families.

“If they felt they could come in, it was a pretty good time to do that,” Kirchner says. “It was super helpful for some of our vulnerable kids or kids that were feeling stressed just being stuck at home.”

How have students fared?

She says that in part because of the leadership of provincial health officer Bonnie Henry, students generally haven’t been very worried about contracting the coronavirus. But many have had difficulties with all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, according to Kirchner. 

A handful of students couldn’t do any schooling this spring because they had to work full time to support families hit hard financially by the pandemic, Kirchner says. She adds that the school helped arrange food via Nourish Cowichan for families that reported suddenly having no food. “I feel really honoured that people would trust us to let us know that we could help,” she says.

The unusual end to the school year was also hard for students on sports teams that had their seasons cancelled as well for students who are very social, Kirchner says. However, she notes that online learning was actually preferable for some students. 

My highly severely anxious kids, this has been really good for them,” Kirchner says. “Walking to classrooms, through a front door or trying to navigate the teenage milieu is challenging for some people.” She adds that some of these students decided to get jobs this spring, which enabled them to “push those boundaries in a way that they wouldn’t in a school atmosphere.”

How are graduating students coping?

Many Grade 12 students had a hard go of things, Kirchner says. “We know for the most part that when they heard they couldn’t have a [regular] graduation, kids were so upset. They were grieving, and we were grieving too,” she recalls.  

A revised Frances Kelsey’s graduation happened on June 15 to 17, with students given individual 15-minute slots to walk the red carpet and receive their diplomas in front of their families. According to Kirchner, a higher percentage of kids participated in the grad ceremony than in recent years, and she reports that families and students appreciated how much more personal it was than usual.

“They were pleasantly surprised. Kids have told us it was way better than they thought,” she says. “They recognized we were trying really hard to honour them.”

She says that at least one Grade 12 student opted not to graduate this year because he hopes to experience a traditional graduation next year. She also says that another Grade 12 student will be returning for the first semester because the First Nations carving program he had planned to attend will only be offering online instruction in the fall. 

Some students are delaying plans for post-secondary education because they aren’t comfortable with taking classes online and will take a gap year instead, Kirchner says. She adds that some students already planning a gap year have adjusted their plans to stay closer to home. Likewise, some students who had been planning to attend university out of province have decided to go to a more local school.

“It’s been an interesting process, living this historical moment together,” she says.

How can students and families stay well this summer?

Establishing structure at home is key during the summer well as during the school year, says Kirchner. “If kids are going to bed later, that’s okay,” she says. “Just have a structure that makes sense.”

She says it’s also important for kids to be active and get outside as much as possible. For students who are old enough, she recommends getting summer jobs.

Kirchner generally encourages more family time, such as kids helping prepare meals or at least eating together. However, this doesn’t apply to every situation. “If a child is not in a safe place, they need to get out of that house and move,” says Kirchner.

Above all, Kirchner advises that parents be understanding and compassionate about how unsettling living through a pandemic can be for their children. Echoing the words of Bonnie Henry, Kirchner says that the most important thing is to “be kind to each other.”