COVID-19 will change how we live — some of it forever — and education may be one of the more affected areas of life. Out of necessity, K-12 schools, colleges and universities have transitioned to remote “virtual learning.” Teachers and instructors are now communicating with students via personal computers, and lesson plans have been altered to online formats. Despite these accommodations, concerns remain high among key stakeholders that a delay in returning to an in-person, school-based education will bring an irretrievable loss of central elements to traditional education businesses and institutions.
How Education Businesses Have Adapted Their Structures
To adjust to the current circumstances, education businesses have been challenged with the task of making services, normally available for students in-person, virtually accessible. As the pandemic unfolds, companies like Student Assistance Programs and Training Services, which provides immediate crisis intervention and scheduled counseling for students, have made central adaptations to operations, including changing the delivery of counseling services from the primary and preferred modality of in-person to exclusively telephonic and virtual formats.
This shift was facilitated by the quick reaction of counselors in the business’ provider network, an unexpected benefit that included additional counseling hours from many therapists. Not only were operations moved entirely online, but the company also had to accommodate the significant increase in requests for counseling, initially with confusion and anxiety about COVID-19 itself, followed by concerns from parents, students and educators about how to conduct meaningful educational practices in quarantined environments. As the pandemic progressed, these concerns deepened to include the challenge of whether or not students and educators should return to school and under what conditions they should return to face-to-face learning.
Institutions Need to Adjust to This New Educational Landscape
For students of any age, “going to school” is a ritual of experiences beyond formal learning. In the community of a school, students meet other cultures and behaviors, build their personalities and test their thinking, with guidance and support from professional educators. When necessary, schools even provide counseling services or direct students to options for mental health care, and, for too many students, schools may be their only opportunity to receive such critical help; this being especially true in minority communities.
With the shift to online learning, the loss of stabilizing resources offered by schools makes the pandemic more acute for many students. College and university groups have increased the use of virtual counseling by 200% since the start of the pandemic, but many schools are still tentative to invest.
Funding for mental health in school districts has long been insufficient given the need, and COVID-19 has made that fact a difficult reality. Young people have always needed and deserved better attention to their issues. Beyond commitment and dollars, the in-school approach to mental health services, even when supported by good community mental health resources, provides for less than 15% of a student’s living hours in a year.
Perhaps not a problem for those families with good insurance but certainly a problem for students from low-income families, a lack of resources is detrimental to students, especially now. Basic medical and mental health services provided through schools are further hampered by the lack of school nurses. In fact, 25% of schools reported having no nurse, and 40% of schools reported being understaffed. What is more concerning is that 30% of students are estimated to receive their primary mental health counseling through their school.
What is needed is an “always open” approach to student mental health, drawing on multiple, integrated public and private sector services.
How Will Education Businesses Fare Moving Forward
In a post-pandemic world, an electronic delivery method of teaching and related services will increase. A prime driver of virtual communication will be the depletion of experienced teachers leaving due to planned retirement or reacting to being in a classroom during an unpredictable time.
But what must not be lost are the reasons for being in school: It is a community that offers socialization with other children and exposure to cultures that is unmatched. Education builds personality and challenges students — all with the guidance and support of professional educators. Therefore, if the current landscape continues, it’s critical that educational institutions provide readily available resources and programs for all students that help support these reasons.
American educational institutions have never faced such a crisis in their fundamental operations and purpose, and they will continue to adjust to the present circumstances.
The pandemic has required many industries to change their processes and business structures. With concentrated efforts to assist students’ growth and provide them with access to resources during this unprecedented time, educational institutions can support students during this challenging time.
For 38 years, Paul Fleming has led management and marketing in the fields of substance abuse treatment, and national programs for employee assistance and student assistance. His Arizona companies, Jorgensen Brooks Group and Student Assistance Programs & Training Services, operate from Tucson and Phoenix.