My school is closed. Students stopped coming on March 16 and within days, the campus was completely closed except for maintenance, janitorial and some administrative and office personnel. Oh, by the way, I am a crisis counselor for Summerville High school over in Tuolumne County.
Schools closed in Calaveras County on March 16 as well, so the lives of children and families were suddenly, at least initially, sort of exciting and novel. No one seemed to know when they would return, so some folks probably thought, “Hey, it’s just a bigger spring break than usual.” That would have been my first thought all the way until my senior year.
It was clear, at least to those of us who were watching the news, reading reports online, and listening to the news from other countries, that school wasn’t going to start up in a few weeks. But the word wasn’t official until the end of March. Suddenly, the reality of what was really happening began to sink in, and teachers, parents, students, administrators were all having to figure out how to approach this nearly unprecedented situation. The first information many administrators put out echoed County Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik’s: “It is important to understand we are not ‘closing’ schools; school buildings are closed.”
Most educators realize that education is one of the fundamental building blocks of any democracy and must go on, if at all possible. That’s why I have spent the last 10 weeks attending meetings using the video conference services of Zoom and Google Meet. Teachers, students and parents, plus mental health professionals such as counselors and therapists have all been learning how to provide services in ways that are new to many of us.
As a school crisis counselor, I do my best work when I am sitting in my carefully arranged and decorated office with a few students sitting across from me. That has not been possible these many weeks of the school closure. Humans are social beings and depend on so much more than the words that are exchanged in face-to-face conversations. Body language and movement, facial expression and subtle tone of voice contribute to a better understanding of each other.
Fortunately for me, decades ago an organization called Switchboard, next to the University of California, Santa Barbara, trained me in using a telephone to provide support for suicidal and other really distressed people. After months of working in this suicide prevention office in the small town of Isla Vista adjacent to the university, it was easy to get comfortable with this faceless interaction and still do effective work. Cell phones, computers, e-mail and other communication devices were in various stages of shrinking and getting smarter, but it was nothing like it is today.
Students that talk to me today often say, “I talked to my boyfriend for hours last night,” as an explanation for why they were so tired. But the important question was, “Did you talk or did you text?” Most often text is what they mean, not actually talk. We now have many technological ways to exchange information, but they usually involve small screens and text. Sure, you can send great pictures and video on Instagram, Facebook, Facetime, Skype and many other services, but in my opinion, it is not the same as talking in person.
This difference has made my counseling job more challenging but still fun and interesting. I just have to work harder, because just as in those faceless calls at the suicide prevention center, I have to pay so much more attention to every word, inflection and hidden meaning. I am grateful that we do have some amazing technology so that we can communicate in a wide variety of ways, but not sure any of these will ever replace the brief smile, moments of sadness, or that fleeting look of anger, or most importantly a shared laugh.
Following the pandemic experience, most of the high school students I work with have come to appreciate live, in-the-classroom teaching. Parents are beginning to learn more about how education works and to appreciate the job that teachers do for their children. Of course, what most seem to miss is the chance to be with and see their friends. The teachers seem to feel the same way. What I know is I really miss the students with all their personal problems, enthusiasm for life, and their humor. It seems we are all waiting for this novel experience to be a fascinating part of our history, and the sooner the better.
Kevin Wychopen is a semi-retired school counselor and columnist for the Enterprise. Contact him at email@example.com.