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Pandemic underscores needs for more counseling at Aspen Elementary

Aspen Elementary School.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Talking to kids about the coronavirus

When talking about COVID-19 with children, parents should “try to keep information simple and remind them that health and school officials are working hard to keep everyone safe and healthy,” according recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suggestions for talking to children about the novel coronavirus include:

• Remain calm and reassuring.

• Make yourself available to listen and to talk.

• Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.

• Pay attention to what children see or hear on television, radio, or online.

• Provide information that is honest and accurate.

• Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs.

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Aspen Elementary School counselor Amy Showers has worked with kindergartners through fourth-graders since March 2018, gradually becoming more acquainted with them and building their trust.

“I still don’t know all of the students,” she said Friday, “but what I do know is one of our biggest challenges at Aspen Elementary School is mental health.”

As school counselor, Showers’ role is to support students by giving them academic, social, emotional and even career advice for the future. She hears firsthand from children what they are experiencing, and the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down schools since mid-March, has exacerbated the problem, Showers said.

Theses days, Showers regularly meets — virtually or by phone — with six to eight students a day for 30-minute sessions.

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“One of the biggest things that I miss now is the personal connection, when you are able to assess someone’s body language and laugh with somebody in person and work with somebody by doing an activity together,” she said. “It’s really hard to create that online.”

Parents, some of whom are struggling to help their kids learn remotely from home, also can be included in the conversations.

“A lot of kids are very worried about their grandparents and parents, and family members who aren’t in Aspen,” she said. “They’re even worried about their pets.”

Showers said she emphasizes to the students, who range from kindergartners to fourth-graders, to focus on what they can control.

“When you think you can have control over something,” she said, “it can ease your mind.”

One thing Showers has lacked control over is her workload. As the school’s only counselor, that means Showers has nearly 500 students in her purview. It is not sustainable, she said, especially in this climate of remote learning and uncertainty.

“We are not meeting the needs of all of our kids,” she said. “I’m one person and we have 472 kids.”

Showers’ concerns come when the Aspen Education Foundation, a fundraising arm for Aspen public schools, is embarking on a campaign to raise $75,000 to pay for a second school counselor at Aspen Elementary, which would put it on par with the middle and high schools.

The middle school was able to hire a second counselor this year because of AEF fundraising, and the nonprofit’s executive director, Cynthia Chase, said the organization is now focused on getting another one at AES.

“We’re going to do the fundraising through social media,” Chase said, noting they are unable to have an in-person fundraiser this month because of public health orders.

The AEF got a kickstart to its campaign with a $30,000 donation from a family foundation associated with Aspen resident and parent Diana Duffey Chase.

Details about the foundation can be found at aspenaef.org.

Meanwhile, Aspen City Council on Tuesday will look at adding one more year to the city’s intergovernmental agreement with Pitkin County, Aspen Valley Hospital, Aspen School District and city of Aspen regarding mental health and substance-abuse services by Mind Springs Health in collaboration with Mountain Family Health Centers.

That includes an additional $33,420 in funds, which the city has collected through its tobacco tax, to also increase funding for a school district counselor from a 60% employee to a full-time employee.

Showers said time is of the essence to bring another counselor to the elementary school, which also has a school psychologist.

“My concern is when this is all said and done, my case load isn’t going to get smaller,” she said. “It’s going to get bigger.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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