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FAQs: Virtual School Counseling Ethics
(Updated August 10, 2020)
 
In March 2020, thousands of school counselors were suddenly thrust into online school counseling. Myriad questions followed as school counselors found themselves wrestling with the legal and ethical implications of moving from in-person school counseling to providing school counseling virtually. Even though online school counseling has been a part of our profession for decades, new issues have emerged as school counselors ramped up to support students whose world had shifted. Three major themes emerged: student confidentiality, appropriate technology and unrealistic demands. 
Getting Started
What are some things to consider when establishing a virtual school counseling program?
  • Follow school and district policies and procedures.
  • Work with your administrator to disseminate information to families about what the program will entail.
  • Set specific “office hours.”
  • Establish clear virtual boundaries.
  • Update the school and school counseling program website regularly. 
  • Consider listing emergency and after-hours resources on your website for 24/7 access by students and families.
  • Develop a protocol for student crisis.
Confidentiality
FERPA and HIPPA: What guidelines should school counselors follow in virtual school counseling?
School counselors have expressed much angst regarding whether or not the platform they’re being asked to use is Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant. HIPAA does not apply to elementary or secondary schools except in “in a few limited circumstances” (USDOE and USDHHS, 2019, p. 8).   
 
Schools that receive federal funds are not HIPAA-covered entities, because the health information maintained on a student’s record is an education record and covered by Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Use the platform your district has assigned because this is safest for you. If the district did not vet the platform for privacy, you may need to advocate for a change, but you do not have to worry about whether the platform is HIPAA compliant; even mental health providers who are under contract and control of the district are covered under FERPA, not HIPAA. 
 
If your school is private and receives no federal funds, you may encounter an unusual case in which someone who bills for health care might fall under HIPAA. For example, “if a private elementary or secondary school not subject to FERPA employs a physician who bills a health plan electronically for the care provided to students (making the school a HIPAA-covered entity), the school must comply with the HIPAA rules regarding the individually identifiable health information of its patients” (USDOE and USDHHS, 2019, p. 8). Get all the information you need on how HIPAA and FERPA intersect and an easy-to-read chart.

What are some things I can do to ensure confidentiality?
It is important to note that we cannot completely "ensure" confidentiality in an online setting given our limitations. We cannot know the student is alone, for example. However, these practices can help work toward this ideal:
  • Use headphones with a microphone, and suggest students do as well. 
  • Use a white noise machine to help prevent others from overhearing private conversations
  • Identify a separate or private room. (You may think you are starting with an academic topic, but the discussion may venture into other areas.) 
Do I need a signed release before meeting with a student virtually?
It is recommended to follow the policies of your school. If students do not sign releases to meet with you in your typical role on site at your school, it may not be necessary to get additional permission. However, it is important to follow the policies established by your school district, particularly in relation to the move to online learning.
 
My school wants school counselors to record phone calls or virtual meetings with students and families. Is this something I should do?
It depends. For academic advising or college-related topics, this may be okay as long as you let the student and family know ahead of time that the session is being recorded. Obviously, you will not be able to have private (confidential) conversations with students given that these will be recorded and made available to administration.
 
Can school counselors take home educational records if asked to do so by an administrator?
There is no prohibition against teachers and school counselors taking home educational records, assuming the school counselors/teachers are school officials with legitimate educational interests, which they probably are. They should just be sure to protect the information they take home and ensure other people who are not school officials or parents don’t see the information.  
 
Can I run a virtual small group?
It is possible to hold a group virtually. However, you need to weigh the confidentiality considerations, which may be tricky to uphold in a virtual setting, with the need and purpose the group will fill. Work with your administrator to determine the best course of action. 

Our school provided laptops to our students. Through a monitoring system our school district uses, we are seeing some of the things students are searching. These include issues such as substance use, rape and suicide. What is our legal obligation when we see these searches?
An internet search doesn't necessarily indicate serious and foreseeable harm to self or others but could.  If the monitoring system is in place, always alert parents if a suicide topic is being researched, and provide community resources and ask the parents to seek outside resources to address what is going on with their child. The district needs to determine a way to respond to serious concerns without burdening the school counselors and also determine which topics will trigger a call to parents. Perhaps an administrator could be responsible for this since the monitoring system is already in place anyway. The administrator and school counselor could collaborate about issues requiring outreach from the school to the student and families. The school district may want to see if the software has an alert that will skip the school and go right to the parent/family. Districts may also consider working with parents and families about how to appropriately monitor their child’s online activity.
Technology
My district wants me to use one type of online conferencing technology, but I’d rather use a different kind. Is this okay? 
It is far safer to use what the district suggests. The district has likely vetted the program to make sure it will interface and integrate with the district’s system and security approach. For example, one large urban district requires Microsoft Teams because it is part of the larger group of software applications fully adopted and integrated with the district’s systems and security. This protects the educator against false accusations and the student against exploitation because the district can review activity occurring in Teams. It is not a matter of which program or app is superior but rather which online program offers the best layer of protection for all as determined by the district. 
 
What are some considerations when using a specific platform for virtual/distance school counseling?
  • Read the privacy policies of the platforms your school system uses. 
  • Know limitations of the district’s platform.
  • Advocate for a change if the platform is thought to be detrimental.
  • Don’t select or use a platform without district approval.
What are some platform options?
  • Skype for Business/Microsoft Teams
  • Updox
  • VSee
  • Zoom 
  • Doxy.me
  • Google G Suite
  • Hangouts Meet by G Suite
  • Adobe Connect 
Can I use my personal cell phone to talk with students and families?
It is recommended to use school-issued devices. However, if the school has not provided you with devices, you may need to discuss the possibility of using your own devices. If it is decided that you will use your personal device, it’s important to develop boundaries around your working hours and communicate this to students and families. In addition, be sure you maintain these boundaries, such as not answering the phone at times you are not able to assist a student. It would be helpful to use away messages or other communications to direct students to where they may get help outside of your available working hours.   
 
If you want to block a phone number, you can follow these steps:
  • Enter *67.
  • Enter the number you wish to call (including area code).
  • Tap Call. The words "Private," "Anonymous" or some other indicator will appear on the recipient's phone instead of your mobile number.
Do I have to use the computer the school issued me, or can I use my much superior laptop? 
You must use the school-issued computer unless the district offers you an exception. Again, it is about safety and security. There are privacy settings that protect district computers that your personal computer may not have. Advocate for your equipment needs, but be careful not to go against school district dictates regarding equipment. 
 
Insurance Coverage
Does my ASCA-provided insurance cover tele-counseling?
The coverage provided with the ASCA membership includes coverage for tele-counseling as long is this is part of your school counseling activities. The limit is $1 million per occurrence/aggregate, and it pays after the school coverage has paid. Students who are ASCA members and in master’s programs are covered by ASCA’s liability insurance for activities that are part of the university’s practicum/internship program/requirements.

How do I obtain ASCA insurance?
Insurance is free for ASCA professional and student members. Click here for more information about membership and here for more information about ASCA’s insurance program. 
Deaths and Suicide Risk
What do I do in the event of a student or school community death? 
  • Gather the crisis team
  • Inform relevant parties
  • Counseling to provide support opportunities to students affected
  • Provide information/access to community resources and support
The differences may be that the crisis team meeting will be via Zoom or some other video conferencing tool. By informing relevant parties, this may be email or some other way, considering on the school and the age appropriateness of the news. 
 
Given the students are with the families (and not at school), it is prudent to inform families first of such situations. The parents/guardians can then decide how best to tell their child. School counselors may still reach out via videoconferencing to affected students and may hold some sort of online peer group support.
 
If the death is a student suicide, we will want to be even more thoughtful/intentional as others may be influenced (contagion). Therefore, we recommend connecting with community-based agencies who might be able to provide additional phone or online support to students who need it.
 
What do I do if I suspect a student may be suicidal?
Your school/district should have a protocol in place for working with students who may be suicidal. Follow that protocol. Here are additional steps:

If you are working with a student who appears to be experiencing a suicidal crisis, begin at Step 1. If you are informed of a student who may be having a suicidal crisis by another member of the school community, proceed to Step 2 below. 

Step 1: If a student you are working with appears to be having a suicidal crisis use active listening:
  • to establish a trusting relationship with the student
  • to decrease the intensity of the student’s emotions
  • to ask about the student’s current state and plan or means to carry it out
Step 2: Inform parents/families.
If you are in direct contact with the student in crisis, maintain video/voice contact with student while this contact is made, if possible. For example, you might ask the student to bring the phone/laptop to the parent/guardian if the parent/guardian is in the same place as the student.
  • Convey the information you have. 
  • If risk may be high and parents cannot be reached or are not with the student, contact local police to do a wellness check.
Step 3. Document information received, decisions made and actions taken per the school district directives.

Step 4. Consult with another school counselor or student instructional support personnel to review steps, if possible.

Step 5. Notify your appropriate administration about the situation.

Step 6. Follow up.
  • Refer family to community resources.
  • Follow up with the student and family.
Step 7. If relevant, follow up with the friend(s) or other individual who referred the suicidal student to ensure the student continues to have support.

My principal wants me to do suicide risk assessments over the phone when we have reason to believe a student might be at risk. Is this appropriate?
Requiring school counselors to conduct suicide risk assessments is problematic on so many levels, not the least of which is the fallibility of assessing suicidal risk. Add to this complication the fact that the virtual world puts a barrier between the school counselor and student; sometimes there are no verbal or nonverbal cues through a computer monitor. The standard of care for school counselors when being required by others to assess students for suicide is to employ these assessments with extreme caution, with a follow-up assessment completed by a mental health professional who can spend the amount of time needed to more accurately address what is happening with the student. Quantifying the risk (high risk, medium risk or low risk) based largely on student response is a dangerous practice; the information gleaned should be considered unreliable. To tell a parent the risk is low is to convey what you cannot possibly know with certainty. 

Get in touch with the parents as soon as possible, and tell them to seek professional help for their child. If a student expresses suicidal ideation while you are talking to him/her, proceed as you would in a brick and mortar situation. Stay with the student. Keep the student talking. Have the student “take you” virtually to his/her parent. If that isn’t possible, alert the parent by another means. If you cannot reach the parents, have the police do a welfare check. Establish a protocol for virtual response to suicide ideology.
 
Appropriate Duties
I am being asked to make home visits for those students who have not responded to their virtual classes. Am I unreasonable to want out of this dictate? 
Dictates that would be considered unheard of in the everyday life of a brick and mortar school counselor’s day are suddenly appearing in virtual schools. You are right to feel uncomfortable. Use all your powers of persuasion to get out of this. If you’re in a state with a shelter-in-place order, these visits might even be illegal. Students have to be reached without putting educators at risk. Robo calls, news reports, public service announcements, etc., can be used to emphasize to the school community the importance of responding to the school. If a school counselor does end up making house calls, he or she should never go alone. Try to pair up with the school resource officer, use COVID-19 safety precautions, have a set plan as to what should be accomplished and take any resources, such as a laptop, you may need. Again, home visits should not be on the school counselor’s shoulders.
 
What do I do if I’m asked to help with health screening?
In the current, unprecedented environment, school counselors may be tasked with participating in functions that are not typically 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, enforcing mask wearing, etc.). Given that all staff likely will be engaged in these or similar functions, this should be considered a fair share responsibility.
 
What if I’m asked to teach a class to lower classroom ratios?
Classroom instruction is part of the ASCA National Model; however, teaching a course is not. Reference your school or district’s job description for school counselors to determine if this is addressed. Also, it’s important to know if a teaching certification is required for serving in this role. You should discuss with your administration about the student needs that may not be met or addressed as a result of teaching.  Share data about the impact of your school counselor work. Ask what would be the contingency plan if you needed to deal with a school emergency. That said, at the end of the day, if a district wants to require this and there is no policy, you would have to comply.
 
For additional ethical guidance, watch Ethical Considerations: School Counseling in a Virtual Setting Part 1 and Part 2..