When Schools Go Dark, School Counselors Shine: School Counseling During a Global Pandemic

Molly Strear, San Francisco State University
Helen Duffy, AIR
Ashley Sunde, AIR

Image of woman at laptop with a headsetAs educational digest and newspaper headlines can attest, COVID-19 is affecting the mental health and academic achievement of students across the country. School counselors are uniquely positioned in schools and districts to provide access to many of the supports that help bolster the well-being of students and allow them to be present and succeed academically.

This brief profiles efforts by two state school counseling associations, four districts, and 13 school counselors to meet the needs of students and families during these unprecedented times. With this review, we sought to understand how school counselors responded in the short term when schools were closed due to COVID-19, as well as the planning that ensued as schools prepared to open for virtual, hybrid, and in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. We also asked counselors about the practices and policies they have adopted during this crisis that they would continue to use even after schools return to consistent, in-person instruction.


“We had to go back and always remember that we need to be student-focused and student-centered. And [we] started to evaluate all these practices that we had and really see if they were problematic and not student-centered.”
- School counselor
  • Like other educators, school counselors initially responded to the COVID-19 crisis with confusion and uncertainty, which was followed by collaboration and innovation. In schools with strong school counseling leadership at the district level, school counselors were better able to collaborate and felt supported and respected for their efforts.
  • The pandemic pushed school counselors to turn to virtual tools to engage with and track students and families. School counselors recognized the promise of specific technological tools, but also offered some cautions about technology use.
  • During the pandemic, school counselors were relieved of activities that take them away from their expertise in providing comprehensive services to students and families, and instead stepped into leadership roles that allowed them to provide comprehensive, virtual, Tier 1 social–emotional learning and academic and career counseling services to students.
  • The COVID-19 crisis forced school counselors to examine their policies and practices through the lens of student need. Policies and practices that served adult needs were set aside.
  • School counselors acknowledged the toll that the pandemic has had on the social and emotional health not only of students, but of adults as well, including parents, guardians, and school staff.


  • School and district leaders should honor the unique professional knowledge and expertise that school counselors bring to their work.
  • Although technology filled some of the gaps that were created when in-person instruction was halted and provided expanded opportunities for communication, connection, and collaboration in counseling work, its use should be carefully considered once schools return to more traditional instruction.
  • When schools return to “normal,” district and school leaders should examine policies and practices that impact students such as graduation requirements, attendance, and disciplinary policies, and the methods students use to access counseling and support services should be reexamined to determine whether they truly serve the needs of students.