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School Counseling During a Pandemic
9/1/2020
ASCA Ethics Committee
Tuesday September 01, 2020
by: ASCA Ethics Committee

Section: Inside Insight


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What confidentiality considerations should I keep in mind during virtual individual and group counseling?
The same limits of confidentiality (serious and foreseeable harm) apply virtually as well as in person, and you should discuss them with students before counseling begins. To limit others overhearing you and your students, you should be in a private space and use a headset if possible. Also be sure to use a district-approved, secure platform. Be aware that you don’t know who else is on the other side of the computer screen, and make sure the student understands you can only control confidentiality on your end. If a parent, sibling, family member, friend, repairman or anyone else is on their end, that person potentially can hear what the student is saying. The same goes for a group setting. You don’t know who else may be in the room with other group members, so encourage students to wear headphones for some privacy. 
 
Due to COVID concerns, students aren’t allowed to come to my office for any reason. I’m only allowed to speak with students in the hallway directly outside their classroom. What do I do? 
According to the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, schools present competing interests, including the safety of students, parental rights and the best interest of students, but it is critical to respect students’ privacy to the greatest extent possible and to adhere to laws, policies and ethical standards around confidentiality and disclosure in the school setting. 

Students need a safe, private space to talk, and the school must consider what the plan will be in case of a crisis, if abuse is suspected or if the student is considering harm to self or others. A student in crisis may not feel comfortable opening up when peers are nearby. If students can move around the building to see other school staff, they should be able to see the school counselor. In the past six months, many students have experienced trauma and stress related to the pandemic and racial violence. A safe, supportive and equitable learning environment requires us to provide structures for physical and emotional safety. Providing student physical and psychological safety includes ensuring specialized support personnel, including school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers, have an adequate space to meet with students confidentially while physically distant. When schools and school districts do not plan for these safety concerns, the school counselor should advocate for change. The ASCA Ethical Standards state school counselors advocate for safeguards and protocols to protect student confidentiality (A.2.m), and school counselors advocate for student safety at school (A.10.b). 

School counselors can use the above points and the ASCA Ethical Standards in their advocacy efforts. The ASCA position statements The School Counselor and Confidentiality, The School Counselor and Safe Schools and Crisis Response, and The School Counselor and Student Mental Health may provide additional advocacy support. As a school counselor, you need to understand how to negotiate your school’s political landscape. Advocacy efforts that come across as adversarial may do more harm than good. Diplomacy is an important skill to employ when advocating.  
 
How can I provide a school counseling program for all students in a virtual or hybrid setting that addresses students’ academic, career and social/emotional development? 
You have an ethical responsibility to deliver a school counseling program that addresses students’ academic, career and social/emotional needs. Delivering school counseling services through a virtual or hybrid setting should include all three domains and shouldn’t be limited by the district’s meeting platforms. A wide variety of resources are available on the ASCA website, www.schoolcoun
selor.org, for school counselors to access so they can deliver an evidence-based, effective program online. 

Similar to the brick-and-mortar setting, school counselors should continue to rely on outcome data obtained from achievement, attendance and discipline reports to understand student needs and assess intervention effectiveness. After schools closed last spring due to the pandemic, attendance and discipline data may not have been collected or may be viewed differently than in in previous years. In that case, achievement data may be the only source of outcome data to understand student needs. Supplemental data such as needs assessments and program evaluations can also be used to gain greater context about the outcome data. Data obtained from these assessments can be analyzed and reported to school administrators, faculty and parents in ways that highlight the current program’s accomplishments and limitations. Findings from these reports will provide the evidence needed to determine whether all three school counseling domains are addressed in the virtual or hybrid setting. 
 
My principal told me I’ll be required to assist with temperature checks when students return to school. Is this outside the scope of my role?
In the current environment, school counselors may be tasked with participating in functions that typically are not part of their role, whether instruction is occurring virtually or in person. Advocating for appropriate responsibilities is important, but flexibility will be required. School counselors may be assigned to participate in health and safety efforts (taking temperatures, reminding students to wear their mask, etc.). Given that all staff likely will be engaged in these or similar functions, this should be considered a fair-share responsibility.
 
My district requires all instructional staff to report to the school each day even though students are learning virtually. My family continues to quarantine, and I am not comfortable being around others because of a family member’s underlying health concerns. What are my options?
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability, that protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment. ADA doesn’t require employers to accommodate employees without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom they are associated. For example, an employee without a disability isn’t entitled under ADA to telework as an accommodation to protect a family member with a disability from potential COVID-19 exposure. Of course, an employer is free to provide such flexibilities if it chooses to do so.  

Consult with your union representative, employment advocate or employee assistance program if you have access to them. Explore taking a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act if that is an option. We know virtual school counseling can take place and be effective. There are numerous resources on the ASCA website, www.schoolcounselor.org/covid, to share with your district to support your request to work virtually. 
 
Is it necessary to get parent/guardian consent for individual counseling in a virtual setting?
Challenges exist in obtaining parent/guardian consent in a brick-and-mortar school setting and are even more pronounced in a virtual context. Despite the complications of providing virtual school counseling services, it is important to adhere to the same ethical guidelines as you would in person. Some school districts have specific policies and procedures around parent/guardian consent. If your district previously required consent for school counseling services when you worked in person, you should continue to adhere to those policies in a virtual setting unless they have been softened or amended. Similarly, you must comply if your district enacted a new policy for obtaining parental permission when providing virtual school counseling services. 

Best practice is to inform parents/guardians when you are providing individual counseling for a student for more than one or two sessions. Currently, it may be challenging to simply inform parents/guardians without adding the need for a parental signature. Nevertheless, make every effort to inform parents/guardians about the risks and benefits of providing individual virtual school counseling services, including limits of confidentiality in a video or electronic format. It is impossible to guarantee confidentiality in an online setting; therefore, both students and parents need to be informed of these limitations. 
 
Can school counselors conduct group counseling in a virtual setting? Am I still required to get parent/guardian consent? 
Under the best circumstances, legal and ethical complications are acutely present in small-group delivery. This is especially problematic in the virtual world. Confidentiality for groups in a brick-and-mortar situation is fragile because the school counselor can never feel secure that students will abide by it or understand all the nuances. Remember, anything said in the group can be tweeted, posted on social media or discussed in the hallway within seconds or minutes. School counselors must be vigilant in what they allow one student to talk about in front of their classmates. Ensuring confidentiality in a virtual world is even more difficult. You can’t know who is listening in each student’s household. It might be impossible for a student to seek a private place, use headphones or keep family members out of earshot. 
Informed consent is even more important when providing group counseling services. Many legal and ethical complications in small-group counseling settings are more pronounced in a virtual context, particularly in regard to ensuring confidentiality. Students may disclose sensitive or personal information in front of classmates or household members, and school counselors should take the perspective that confidentiality likely will be breached. As a result, you should inform parents/guardians when their child is participating in a small group. Parent/guardian notification allows you to share the group’s purpose, focus and goals and inform them about the challenges of maintaining confidentiality in a virtual format. Informing parents/guardians of the benefits and limitations of group counseling provides them an opportunity to make an informed decision and opt their child out of services if they choose. It is helpful to share this information both verbally (video or phone) and in writing. 

While best practice is to obtain written consent from parents, it can be challenging to simply inform parents given our current reality. At minimum, school counselors should obtain verbal consent and document it is received from parents/guardians before students begin attending virtual small-group sessions.  
 
What is the school counselor’s responsibility when a student may be a risk to self and a parent/guardian cannot be located?
ASCA’s position statement The School Counselor and Suicide Risk Assessment indicates that our primary responsibility is to notify parents/guardians. Educators and school counselors stand in loco parentis, meaning we stand in the parent’s place when the student is at school. Therefore, in a brick-and-mortar setting, good practice is to keep the student with you until you can make contact with the parent/guardian. At times, the student may have to stay with you after school until the parent/guardian can be reached. Students may say things to avoid scrutiny; therefore, parent/guardian contact is imperative. If the school day has ended and all attempts to contact a parent/guardian have been unsuccessful, it may be necessary to contact law enforcement and/or child protective services to take custody of the student and keep the student safe. If counseling is being provided remotely, it is critical to always know your student’s physical address. In the event of risk of harm to self or another, the school counselor should attempt to keep the student online while simultaneously trying to contact a parent/guardian. If a parent/guardian can’t be reached, law enforcement should be sent to the student’s location to ensure the student’s safety.
 
What do I do if my school district requires me to indicate a student’s level of risk on suicide risk assessment paperwork?
A school counselor’s role in working with students at risk for suicide is complex. You must navigate your legal and ethical responsibilities toward students, parents/guardians and the school district. You have a duty of care and legal obligation to make every attempt to prevent a student’s suicide and have the responsibility to notify parents/guardians any time you conduct a suicide risk assessment (SRA) with a student. It is impossible for a school counselor to know a student’s level of suicide risk with certainty, but some districts still require school counselors to document a student’s risk level. Although it is important to comply with mandated district procedures, do not document or indicate to a parent/guardian that a student is low risk because you have no way of knowing for a fact this is the case. Remember, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act grants parents/guardians the right to access anything you write down. Therefore, if you do not directly tell a parent/guardian you believe the student is at low risk but indicate so on an SRA form, the parent/guardian still has access to that information. 

The best approach is to consider noting “unable to determine” if a child falls under the “low risk” category on a district SRA form. In addition, always notify a parent/guardian that you conducted an SRA on a student (at any risk level) and support parents/guardians in obtaining mental health services for the child. 

To submit your questions for a future column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.