Counselors in Janesville schools have been busy since school doors opened again this fall.

The number of students who need services hasn’t necessarily increased, but mental health issues seem amplified for those who are seeking help, said Julie Konstanz, a school counselor at Franklin Middle School.

“I think it’s about normal for the amount of people we’re seeing, but the issues that are coming to us are a little more significant than they have been in the past,” Konstanz said.

Many students are struggling with anxiety, fueled by uncertainty about school and whether they’ll have to switch to virtual learning. Others are more irritable and have shorter fuses but can’t explain why they feel that way, she said.

Some students feel hopeless amid the negative rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, Black Lives Matter conversations and the election.

Current safety protocols also make school counselors’ jobs harder.

Masks can shield facial expressions that indicate a student might be struggling, and it’s harder to build personal connections in socially distanced rooms. At Franklin, open-door policies have given way to limits on the number of students allowed in the office at one time.

“That’s been a really unique challenge this year, and I think one of the things that we as teachers do is really going above and beyond ... to try to use our tone of voice, body postures and all that to be more welcoming,” Konstanz said. “It is difficult for the students, I think.”

She said counselors are trying to be proactive about checking in with students. In-person instruction has helped, allowing them to reconnect with students who might have struggled alone in spring and summer when schools were closed.

“We really are trying to help them find some healthy social connections—whether it’s somebody here at school, a good friend, a family member or family friend—and helping them figure out ways of reaching out to them,” she said.

“We’re also working with them on developing some coping skills and really starting to explore what are some things that they can do and say to themselves to help them get through some of the rough spots.”

District officials have reallocated some administrative work so counselors can focus on taking care of students, Konstanz said.

Kim Peerenboom, the district’s director of pupil services, said district officials have not fielded mental-health concerns from parents or students that are “out of the ordinary” during the pandemic.

School counselors are often the first point of contact for students who are struggling. While they can meet with students one-on-one or lead group discussions, they also can contact parents and refer students to outside agencies. In urgent cases, they can involve Rock County Crisis Intervention staff.

One resource district officials have leaned on is the satellite counseling offices operated by HOPE, a child and family counseling service in Janesville, and Mercyhealth counselors. The satellite offices are spaces inside the schools that give students a private place to video-conference with their mental health teams or counselors.

Students work with student services staff to get passes to leave class for virtual therapy. Parents also can drop into the virtual conferences without having to leave work.

“We are allowing that in order for our students to maintain their schedules with our outside providers, and that’s been successful,” Peerenboom said.

The district has seen more outside health care providers offer virtual counseling for students, she said. The availability of that counseling is determined by a child’s family health insurance.

Students who believe they need counseling fill out a sheet of paper indicating how urgent their need is, and district staff set up meetings or check-ins. Other students have resorted to setting up appointments by email, which has worked well, Konstanz said.

District staff also continue to integrate social and emotional curriculum into class advisory periods, a practice done even in normal school years.

That curriculum is tailored to the age group, Peerenboom said. Elementary school counselors talk about bullying and other topics that apply to younger students. Middle school and high school counselors offer education during homerooms or advisory periods but also try to identify students who need more individual help.

Konstanz said the district has done a good job of ensuring that students’ basic needs are met.

However, school counselors are not the same as mental health professionals, Peerenboom said.

“Obviously, our school counselors know warning signs, and they know general interventions, and they know how to connect people with the agencies,” she said. “But the type of therapy someone with significant mental health needs has is not going to be able to be provided through a school counselor or a school social worker.”

Still, Konstanz said school counselors will continue to be there to help students navigate a challenging year.

“I think that it’s much more complex right now because there are so many things that are outside of everybody’s control,” she said. “We want to be reassuring of students, but we also don’t want to make promises that we don’t know for sure can come true.”

What school counselors can do, she said, is “really reassuring them that they’re not alone, that we’re in this together and telling them you’ve got people that want to be there with you and help carry the load for a while. That’s what we can do.”