In March 2020, I sat on my sofa in my living room looking at my MacBook and wondered, “What am I going to do to provide counseling for my students virtually?” Honestly, I was in shock. After going to the office every day for 22 years, staying at home quarantined with no return date to school felt like being transported straight into a science fiction movie. Like other educators, I had two days to start looking at what I would do to revolutionize my job, counsel my students, and keep my sanity.
Meeting in person to create human connection and relationships that inspire, guide, and educate students is why I became a school counselor, but virtual options quickly became a necessity.
By no means am I a virtual education expert, but I got to work on becoming one. I spent countless hours reviewing articles online and exploring Facebook counselor groups. Over the years, I’ve established strong connections with colleagues and friends at high schools and colleges across the country that I knew would come in handy. After this time, I’ve come to the conclusion that virtual programs and counseling services are here to stay.
Here are five ideas for virtual high school–focused programs that we implemented and can provide productive solutions for counselors, students, and families that are simple to organize and implement.
1. Meet and Eat Lunch Group
When we returned to in-person school in fall 2020, we utilized hybrid instruction while 150–200 students chose to stay virtual. We were concerned about the mental health of our virtual students, who were feeling isolated, and some students lacked motivation. I invited five high school seniors from a club I advised to attend a weekly lunch group as a pilot for the year.
The attendance for the lunch meetings was excellent. Students laughed, cried, and, most important, became a supportive and compassionate community for each other. The conversations were thought-provoking, including topics like politics, academic stress, college applications, grief and loss, and mental health. Students selected topics in an open discussion format at meetings.
Every program has an entirely subjective metric of success (that you determine), and the participation rate may vary. My meet and eat lunch group was one of my favorite virtual initiatives. Though it only impacted a small group of students, each attendee told me that the experience was very meaningful. Despite not offering this program this year because students are in person, I think this virtual group format could be utilized after school or if a counselor is split between multiple buildings.
2. Postsecondary Conferences
Traditionally, each day during the months of February to May, you’ll see many of our families in the counseling center reception area waiting for their junior conferences— 45-minute meetings for 11th-grade students and parents to discuss graduation requirements and plans for the future. Last year, all meetings were virtual.
Many parents appreciated the flexibility of the virtual meetings and sent us positive feedback because they could attend from work or home. We used screen-sharing capabilities to review various resources, shared additional information in the chat, and, most important, still had a face-to-face connection. This year, parents had the choice to schedule in-person or virtual junior meetings, and we will continue to offer virtual meetings in the future.
3. Mock College Application Review Workshops
After watching Brandon McCallister, senior assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago, present to students at my school a few years ago, I invited him back to share his expertise virtually in December 2020 with our current class of juniors, especially those considering highly selective universities.
Selecting a speaker who is knowledgeable and inspiring is important. I knew Brandon had a dynamic personality and would be able to coordinate an engaging and interactive 1-hour session. He reviewed mock college applications with the students, answered questions, and shared his wisdom as a member of the admissions committee. The students were appreciative and stated that this session was interesting and enlightening.
When considering speakers for future programs, I recommend networking with other school counselors, speaking to admissions representatives who visit your school, asking members of professional organizations, and posting questions on Facebook counselor groups. It’s a good idea to start with colleagues you know, and they might also suggest other possible presenters.
4. Admissions Workshops
Collaboration is key for counselors. I reached out to four school counselors from local high schools, and in January 2022, we organized a college admissions information event for sophomore and junior families from all four schools. Chris Doyle, director of undergraduate admissions at Marist College, was our speaker. He sent us the Zoom link, an invitation, and a quick preregistration for participants that we used to track attendance. He also facilitated the 1-hour evening program on a Zoom webinar, which was recorded.
Chris used a feature on Zoom to poll the 400 participants; 87 percent of them said that they felt more prepared for the college search process after the event. Since he coordinated most of the logistics for the event, counselors were only responsible for sharing the Zoom information with parents and students in their districts.
5. Jump-Start Your College Search Night
Our Jump-Start Your College Search Night for freshman and sophomore families is always a popular event in March. During our in-person events in the past, more than 275–300 people attended. Last year, 201 students and parents attended our virtual program and stated that the event helped reduce stress about the college admissions process.
John Young, vice president and dean of admissions at Hobart and William Smith Colleges was our speaker. During the workshop, he outlined a plan for students and parents, including a timeline, terminology, cost and financing options, athletics information, and how to start the college search process.
Although we returned to an in-person program at my school this year, a virtual version of this program is a great, flexible option.