As schools go remote, therapists learn new ways to connect with students

The shift to remote counseling has raised new privacyconcerns, though comes with some advantages, experts say.|

When it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would mean the monthlong closure of the Santa Rosa City School system, Assistant Superintendent of Student and Family Services Steve Mizera thought of the district’s students and the tremendous hurdles they’ve overcome.

It has been less than three years since the Tubbs fire wreaked destruction deep into the heart of Sonoma County, consuming entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods, causing 22 deaths and forcing Sonoma County schools to close for several weeks. Their lives were interrupted the following year when the smoke from the Camp fire in Butte County wafted southwest into Sonoma County, Mizera said, causing so much air pollution that administrators shut down campuses again over health concerns.

Then the Kincade fire and planned power outages hit students and their families simultaneously in late October, temporarily closing schools and disrupting students’ sense of normalcy once more.

“We’ve developed a lot of confidence because we’ve been there,” Mizera said of the district’s response to the pandemic. “For us, the nuance was the remote-learning side of this.”

Therapists and psychologists working throughout Sonoma County grade schools and college campuses have leapt into action to provide virtual mental health services following the closing of campuses because of the coronavirus, ranging from one-on-one phone and video counseling sessions to short text check-ins and mental health-related reminders over social media.

Providing mental health support online and by phone has come with its own set of challenges, however, ranging from securing the right video software to ensure client privacy during counseling sessions to getting students immediate help in cases where they might hurt themselves or others, said Laura Williams, the director of Sonoma State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services office.

A student’s location is now part of the conversation during counseling sessions with her staff, a concern that didn’t exist when students met with counselors on campus. Previously, if someone presented a danger to themselves or others, counselors could call campus police to their office, and students could then be sent to a hospital to receive emergency medical help. Now, they rely on information provided to them by students if authorities need to intervene.

“We need to know exactly where they are in case there is a crisis,” Williams said. “But if they give us bad information, there’s nothing we can do.”

The office has heard from more than 300 students interested in mental health services since her office closed in early March because of the pandemic, most of them students who were in contact with her staff prior to the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

To meet their needs, she and her eight staff members are holding regular therapy sessions by phone and video, virtual weekly group sessions for people with shared concerns, supplemented by a 24/7 counseling hotline where students can reach counselors after hours. A newsletter sent to all students on campus earlier this month outlined the full scope of mental health resources available to them.

“We’re concerned about a lot of our students, especially for a lot of folks that have returned to home situations that aren’t good for them,” Williams said. “Some of our LGBT students are going back to homes that don’t agree with their identity, or don’t know about their identity.”

Another concern was whether students could talk privately with counselors and therapists while they sheltered in place alongside parents and siblings, said Bert Epstein, who manages mental health programs at Santa Rosa Junior College. While phone and video counseling sessions have actually helped some students who in the past struggled to get into a counselor’s office because of busy work schedules and transportation costs, others have found it difficult to find a private place where they can speak candidly with counselors about their problems, Epstein said.

“Some students are getting in their car and having a therapy session there,” Epstein said. “Other students are having a walk on a sunny day and finding a place where they think it’s private.”

At Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County’s largest school district, one of the biggest tasks was getting the infrastructure and technology in place for the more than two dozen mental health staff members who work across the district’s elementary, middle and high school campuses, said Eric Lofchie, the district’s mental health clinical supervisor.

The group immediately prioritized phone check-ins with roughly 300 students who already were receiving mental health support in the district when the pandemic forced the temporary closure of the school, a large number of whom said they were doing OK and did not need additional help, Lofchie said.

From there, Lofchie and his staff looked at ways to expand their reach to other students not already in contact with them but in need of the extra support, he said. That was done through the creation of a warm line or a nonurgent number students can call for support, which operates out of the district’s Integrated Wellness Center on the former Lewis Opportunity School campus.

Middle and high school students in need of resources also were encouraged to ask for appointments with school therapists and can do so through an online survey accessible from the center’s website. The district heard from several middle school-aged students in particular who said they were interested in getting mental health support, Lofchie said.

“I’m just texting with a lot of kids to make sure that they know that they can reach out and ask for help,” Lofchie said. “It’s just about maintaining connections.”

Mizera, the assistant superintendent for Santa Rosa City Schools, said the district was using other means of identifying students who could benefit from speaking with school therapists, including keeping tabs on which students had bad grades in several of their classes, those with ongoing disciplinary issues or those showing other signs of needing emotional support.

“We know our students, we know our population and who are on the borderline,” Mizera said. “We’re managing those lists and reaching out to say ‘What’s going on?’?”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   


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