School counselors everywhere are wondering how they can take their comprehensive school counseling program practices to the virtual and digitized format. And many school counselors are wondering whether groups should or should not be implemented during the time of the COVID-19 school closure season. On one hand confidentiality and security is more at risk but on the other hand kids benefit from communicating and interacting during a time like this. Below, I outline a few steps on what to think about when it comes to virtualized groups.
District and School Policies/Guidelines
There are some districts who are giving a hard “no” to school counselors regarding virtualized groups. These school districts are concerned about potential complications to confidentiality. Picture this. Something that is of a confidential nature is shared. A parent or sibling overhears it. And now the group is no longer “what is said in here stays in here”. Check in with your school district on whether or not virtual groups is even an option.
Content/Purpose of the Group
Some group purposes and therefore content are less risky than others during a virtual group session. Spend some time considering the purpose of the group. If it involves conversations/dialogue related to confidential issues then I would suggest not having this group. An example would be a group with undocumented immigrants or on grief. Other groups like skill building, or friendship groups or social skills groups are far less risky. Some counselors are also just providing a group time for kids to hang out and interact through fun games like scavenger hunts, would you rather, scrabble, simon says, and other table talk conversations. I will be doing lego challenges with my groups (information to come soon on my lego challenges!) and other highly interactive activities. I am choosing content that a younger sibling could join in on if need be!
Informed Consent/Permission Slips
Consider getting informed consent or signed permission slips for participating in a virtual group which explains the risks involved with confidentiality. While this may not be a requirement in your district it is best practice and a great way to communicate with families. I think during this time of unknowns it is extra important to take precautions. The two groups I am running virtually I already ran in person, but I still want to make sure everyone understands the risks involved with confidentiality. For an example, download the one I created for my girls group. School Closure Virtual Group Permission (63 downloads)
Videoconferencing Tool and Security
I have seen so much debate about which videoconferencing tool to use. It may come down to the one that your district allows you to use. If you are assigned to a platform by your district then it is best practice to use this! If you have not been assigned a platform, then HIPPA and FERPA cautions you to think about information and security privacy. Google Meets and Zoom seem to be the most common virtual platforms being used. Each one of them comes with their own perks but they are really similar. Of most importance is that you as the host know how to keep the virtual platform secure for your group. I am using Zoom. So I have naturally watched a lot of videos on how to use Zoom safely. Practice before you start a group. Its different as a host than a participant so know your stuff. Understand waiting rooms, how to lock a meeting, using passwords, and all the other meeting controls. The risks lie in the user/host not knowing how to use the controls properly. For 10 ways to secure Zoom click here: 10 Ways to Secure Zoom Meetings (50 downloads)
Scheduling a virtual group can be a bit of a nightmare. I had to get a hold of every single parent. I tried all methods of contact: text, phone call, and email. This took about a week to get a hold of everyone and explain to them the purpose of the group, how to get on zoom, confidentiality limitations etc… I also asked each parent to confirm with me through a text or email that they understood the limits of confidentiality, I had most success getting a hold of them through a phone call. But it was a lot of work. I didn’t expect a signature on the document. My district has yet to require it and I didn’t want it to be a barrier to their child attending the group. And lets be honest, parents are being inundated with a lot right now.
To determine a time and day of the week to meet I looked at the other commitments they may have. Currently, our distance learning is not full blown yet, so when it is, I am sure I will need to make adjustments to the time.
Teaching the Virtual Platform and Basic Expectations
On the day of the group, I had to help most of the students get on and troubleshoot any technology issues. We had one student who couldn’t get in at all. We had another student with audio issues that fortunately was able to move to a computer. And a third who took about a half hour to figure out the audio. One thing that was helpful for me was to have another adult in the group meeting. I invited our SLP to the group and I am so glad I did. She was able to engage the group in conversation while I helped students who were struggling to learn the virtual platform.
We addresses virtual expectations as well as group expectations. We covered the waiting room feature, audio, muting, not talking over each other, using headphones, being in a location separate from other people when possible, confidentiality risks, as well as how to have fun!
Is it Worth it?
I think so. The kids loved it. One student said it was the best part of her week. The smiles say it all.
Have fun! If this is stressful for you- DON’T DO IT! I repeat, don’t do something that causes too much anxiety or stress. Now is not the time. Take the time and be honest with yourself- is this really want you want to focus your time on? Of course its beneficial to kids, but there are other ways to build on your strengths and to build your program. So choose some things that are fun for you. Now it the time to do it!