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No One Path

By Melissa Brock

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School counselors prepare for a unique back-to-school season.

Dayna Kaneshiro and Amy Thompson share similar apprehensions about returning to school in the fall. Kaneshiro, post-high school counselor at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, was one of only 10 people in her school who worked all summer. “It was nice and we had very few students on campus,” she reflected, but that calm didn’t last. Hurricane Douglas rapidly intensified and threatened Hawaii’s islands at the end of July.

Simultaneously, COVID-19 cases in the state of Hawaii jumped to 122 new cases on July 31 compared to just nine new cases on July 1, for a total of 2,088 confirmed cases. “We had such a low count of [positive] COVID testers and all of a sudden, we started opening up as a state and the numbers went up,” said Kaneshiro.

Thompson, on the other hand, faced a rounder spate of COVID-19 cases. In DuPage County alone, where she is college and career counselor at York Community High School (IL), more than 11,000 cases have been confirmed.

Both districts said the school year must go on, citing scientific studies that suggest that COVID-19 transmission among children in schools may be low. Districts also argue that internationally, rates of infection among younger school children—and from students to teachers—have been low.

In Marietta, Georgia, things are different for Ebonee Mahone-Todman, college advisor/scholarship coordinator at Marietta High School. She said fall learning has already gone all virtual. “Our school district has elected to go full virtual for the first nine weeks of school beginning on Tuesday, August 4, with the plan to reevaluate our in-person re-opening options during that time,” she said.

Mahone-Todman’s college advising office will continue to conduct all student and family meetings via phone or online and has chosen to stick with its normal fall programs but shift them online. She said her school will also host all of its college visits virtually.

Herbie Walker, director of admissions and counseling at Las Vegas college preparatory Cristo Rey St. Viator High School, said his school has made accommodations to make classrooms smaller and hired teachers to allow for more social distancing and staggered times to eliminate congestion in hallways, in addition to a mandatory mask requirement for all staff and students.

He’s devised a workaround in his space and via an online platform. “We do have separate conference rooms and meet in my office, but now counselors are going to use the bigger conference room. …We’ve had success with a virtual counseling platform.”

High schools, all type from all regions, are facing the same obstacles, yet are approaching solutions very differently. This makes it tough to troubleshoot as a profession, said Kaneshiro. “Every school is different. I don’t even know what my counterpart down the road is doing,” she said.

Still, these three secondary school counselors agreed that the college search process has changed in three distinct ways:

● There’s a lack of opportunities for students to visit campuses.
● Standardized testing requirements have changed.
● Families and students are struggling to decide whether going away to college is a good decision.

They are also seeing similarities in their students’ anxieties. “There is so much uncertainty out there that I believe students are approaching the process with desire and hope for ‘an answer’ to something,” Mahone-Todman said. “Not to mention the other racial and social justice pandemic that is plaguing the country at the same time.”

Thompson said that in some ways, it's hard for the students to wrap their heads around a new process. “We're in a high-performing high school and our kids are programmed to take tests. Now schools are test-optional and they should be because so many kids haven’t been able to test. I don’t think it makes sense to test. It is already somewhat of a disadvantage and creates barriers for populations of students,” she said.

Thompson’s personal opinion is that she wouldn’t apply to any school that’s requiring a standardized test. “If it were me applying, I'd take that school off my list. If they want me to risk my life to take a standardized test, I wouldn’t go to that school,” she said.

Whatever her personal opinion, Thompson said it’s still important for the student to make the decision about standardized testing. It can be tricky, she said, because many students are making these types of decisions for the first time in their lives. “Talk to your friends, your parents and find out what they would do and use your best judgment. It’s an exercise in growing up,” she suggested.

Mahone-Todman has noticed that there’s more apprehension from students and families who originally planned to go to college further away from home. “I think with the pandemic hitting in the middle of the semester last year, many students were left trying to figure out what to do with logistics of returning home, and quite frankly, if they should return home for social-emotional reasons,” she said.

Thompson said, while the college search process has changed drastically, a silver lining is that having to move all resources online levels the playing field a little for underserved students. “There are lots of kids who [haven’t had] the resources to do visits. [These changes] actually have narrowed the divide. Now they’ve had the chance for more resources than ever,” Thompson says.

Mahone-Todman said she noticed that students are now better aware of what a good college match should be. “Students are looking for campuses that they feel like are going to be supportive in their academic needs, but their mental health needs as well,” she said.

Thompson points out that it’s also time to reevaluate how counselors help students. “We get caught up in these beliefs and milestones that things have to happen in one order at a certain time. A kid who didn’t get enough financial aid can take a gap year and work and do some enrichment. Everyone needs to realize we have a lot of choices, the vast majority of us. There's no one path to go on that’s unchangeable,” she said.

Above all, Walker said he wants his students to know that colleges will be very understanding with student schedule changes. Social distancing and virtual classes may not make it possible for some AP and dual enrollment classes. However, he wants students to stay motivated and engaged throughout their senior year. “They will still be competing with other top students to the most selective colleges in the country and they need to stay on top of their game,” he said.

And he hopes that colleges will position themselves to be a step toward a better future, instead of something to be anxious about. “I would like colleges to be mindful of the wide disparities of educational inequity that is presenting itself in a post-COVID world. Working-class families are being hit hard and emotions are running high in homes,” he said. “So, I would like for my colleagues in recruitment to remember that they can be a beacon of light and a fresh perspective to the future for them. Be available, be understanding, and continue to show you care.”

Thompson said working together is especially challenging when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. “You can’t predict anything. The virus is really in charge here,” she said. “We want kids in school. We would all love things to be normal. You have to weigh everything and there’s no decision that’s a win…. We must be graceful toward each other and that’s in short supply during these situations. I’m hoping we can get through without damaging relationships and work together.”

Mahone-Todman said she wants her students to trust their counselors and advisers to help lead them through the process. “Many schools (on both sides of the desk) have an understanding of all that you are dealing with and are working in collaboration to help get you where you need to be. We have your back! This is new for all of us, but we are here to support you!” she said.

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College Representatives: Be Mindful
Mahone-Todman and Walker noted that colleges must:

● Be aware that summer melt was worse than usual because most students have been out of a physical classroom for half year.
● Understand that no two schools are handling Fall 2020 the same exact way.
● Make sure policy understanding is reciprocal.
● Counselors are still here to serve students—keep in touch.
● Utilize virtual tools to be in contact with and send resources to students.

Melissa Brock spent 12 years in college admission before becoming the Money editor at Benzinga and founder of College Money Tips. She loves to write about the intersection of college savings, personal finance, creativity and grit.

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