School buildings are closed, but Tara Jaeger is still talking with parents of special-needs students, only now the meetings take place via Google Classroom or over the phone —sometimes while Jaeger holds her 10-month-old daughter in her lap.
“When working in a school, you’re doing one job instead of two,” said Jaeger, a school psychologist for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, referring to the additional responsibilities that come with working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A great deal has been made of the changes teachers have had to adapt to with distance learning, but the challenges of working from home also impact school counselors, librarians, nurses and other paraprofessionals who are continuing to support students and teachers while buildings remain closed during the pandemic.
New Jersey school districts employed close to 19,000 special-services workers in the past school year, according to the state Department of Education. For many of those professionals, in-person meetings that took place in school offices only two months ago have been replaced with phone calls and computer screens. These professionals continue to work, even though some of their duties have changed.
Longer hours for school counselors
Dana Karas, past president of the New Jersey School Counselors Association, said school districts across the state have set up virtual resources that provide social and emotional learning activities to help students at all grade levels deal with the stresses they are facing. She noted that some school counselors have reported working significantly longer hours than they did before the lockdown.
“We’re probably online from seven to five every day because things continue to keep happening with our students,” Karas said. “We just need to be available because even though our primary responsibility is advocacy for students, we are actually there to support parents more so than ever before, as well as our teachers.”
Jaeger said she also has been consulting with families who are not in her usual caseload, providing them with resources and exercises that can help students adjust to home learning.
“Someone who’s not typically on my counseling caseload, but they’re struggling right now, I’m just giving them some resources and speaking with them and consulting with the parents to help their child at home,” Jaeger said.
Karas indicated that according to wellness surveys distributed by school-district counselors, most students feel overwhelmed trying balance schoolwork, social life and health concerns.
“By and large, the number one thing that they’re hearing from students is, ‘I am overwhelmed. I don’t know how to manage my days. I haven’t been able to figure how to create a time-management system that allows me to address all the work I need to do, plus take care of myself physically and emotionally,’” Karas said.
School counselors are sharing resources with important information regarding college applications with upperclassmen. According to Karas, high school juniors and seniors are under additional stress because they can’t attend college tours in person. They’re also worried about whether schools will return to in-person instruction this fall.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the next school year, Karas said school counselors across the state are finding innovative ways to motivate their students and celebrate their accomplishments. For instance, in celebration of National Decision Day on May 1, an annual day when high school seniors announce their secondary education plans, school counselors from different districts created videos of students wearing their college apparel or holding up their military certifications.
And they are brainstorming other ways to make the rest of the school year special for students.
“We have to figure out how do we provide virtual scholarship nights? How do we provide virtual recognition of all the things they’ve worked for and achieved,” she said.
‘The library is open’
When schools began to close amid the coronavirus pandemic, school libraries were inundated with requests from students, teachers and administrators for resources they could access from home, said Christina Cucci, cochair on a task force with the New Jersey Library Association and the New Jersey Association of School Libraries.
School librarians like Cucci are still working from home by helping students and faculty find the digital resources and materials they need for assignments, lesson plans and leisure.
“I feel like I’m working harder than I ever did when we were in school, which is a good thing,” said Cucci, a school-library media specialist in the Upper Saddle River School District.
To help students, teachers and school administrators access the resources they need from home for virtual education, the NJLA and NJASL have joined with the New Jersey State Library to launch a web page called “The Library is Open.”
Cucci helped organize the page by compiling a list of free digital resources — such as apps, databases and online lessons — that are either offered through local public libraries or through the State Library. The Library is Open also offers a live chat that can connect people with a volunteer librarian who can assist them Monday through Friday while all libraries throughout the state remain closed under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders.
“Everybody is used to everything being closed, but when we say The Library is Open we talk about the ubiquitous library and all of these resources that are available digitally that really are open to kids and to parents and teachers and administrators that they might not even realize are available and will really help them in this digital learning environment,” Cucci said.
Allen McGinley, co-chair of the NJLA/NJASL task force and the library director at Teaneck Public Library, said many teachers have been overwhelmed by the abundance of information circulating during the pandemic. But librarians can help teachers find the authoritative and trustworthy information that they need.
“We miss the in-person interactions of traditional services, but I think it’s fantastic the way libraries have been able to pivot,” said McGinley, who helped curate the digital resources on the The Library is Open. “It’s really given us an opportunity to highlight a lot of these collections that we’ve had all along, but now that this is the only opportunity people have to access this information, it’s become much more critical.”
School nurses go virtual
School nurses do more on a typical day than just tend to students who fall on the playground or get sick in class. Now, they’re assisting their schools by providing virtual educational resources about COVID-19 to students, parents and faculty — while also handling many familiar chores.
From their home offices, school nurses have been answering health-related questions over the phone, checking on students and maintaining regular contact with case managers and social workers, said Dorian Vicente, president of the New Jersey State School Nurses Association.
“On top of nurses doing virtual health, they’re also teaching health online to those districts that may not have fulltime health teachers or physical education teachers,” Vicente said.
In addition to educating their school communities, some nurses have volunteered to help on the front lines of the health crisis.
“A lot of school nurses are working from their home virtual offices and they’re also volunteering with their local health departments through the medical reserve corps,” said Vicente. “We’re doing all kinds of work behind the scenes, but we’re also volunteering on the front lines — school nurses off their school hours and with permission from their superintendents, even on school hours.”
Vicente said school nurses have been volunteering at COVID-19 testing sites and performing case management over the phone to assess the symptoms of people who test positive for the virus. School nurses have also donated supplies and PPE from their offices to hospitals and COVID-19 testing sites.
Barbara Maher, a school nurse at Franklin Elementary School in Rahway and president of the Union County Chapter of the New Jersey State School Nurses Association, has been giving guidance related to COVID-19 over the phone to teachers and parents.
“There’s been a lot of parents calling me for advice — ‘Where can I go to test? My son has a fever, what do I do?’” said Maher. “Also, I have a lot of immunocompromised students, so I try to keep track of them — calling them and texting the parents ‘How are you doing?’”
In addition to helping people within her school community, Maher also assists the Rahway Health Department track COVID-19 cases and has been volunteering at the COVID-19 testing site at Kean University in Union for about five weeks.
“There’s a lot of school nurses there and a lot of physicians,” Maher said. “I just felt like I’m a nurse. I have to do something. I don’t think I would have felt good about myself if I could do it and just didn’t.”
Several members of the New Jersey State School Nurses Association are also serving on the Department of Education task force to provide recommendations for developing plans to reopen school buildings.
“It’s a constantly changing situation, but we’re constantly working,” Vicente said. “We’re up and running, and we’re here for our school communities as well as for the community at large.”