New Counseling Suite To Boost Wellness As PHS Faces Challenges of Pandemic

Diana J. Smith

By Donald Gilpin

Kristina Donovan

As Princeton Public Schools (PPS) continue to navigate the challenges of hybrid education in the COVID era, renovation and construction projects, funded by a 2018 facilities referendum, are moving forward with a focus on the post-pandemic return in person of all students and staff.

With extensive renovations in the works, Princeton High School (PHS) will see four new classrooms, an educational commons area, a new grab-and-go dining option, and reimagined counseling and athletics spaces.

Counseling in many schools throughout the country has been changing significantly in recent years, said PPS School Counseling Supervisor Kristina Donovan in a January 25 phone interview, and the pandemic has created additional challenges as well as opportunities.

Donovan sees the new construction with its carefully planned design as an important tool in meeting those challenges. “What really excites me is that student wellness is one of our core values here, and now we’re going to see that in the architectural design,” she said.

She described how the counseling area, which now stands completely gutted, had been put together piecemeal over the years with “little fixes,” temporary walls constructed,  and offices cut in half to make more offices. “It’s what happens in many older buildings,” she said, “but it kind of lost the mission and value of ‘students first.’ So we have worked with a team of architects and stakeholders since 2018 to put my vision of a students-first counseling center into reality.”

Donovan noted that the new counseling suite would include quiet-down spaces for students. “In the past when students were having a moment when they were really upset, where could they go in the school?” She said.  “Unfortunately they would hide in bathrooms or in a hallway for everyone to see.  Now they’ll have a private room where they can calm down and have things like bean bag chairs, board games, and coloring books and different activities to help center them.”

The new design includes a separate entrance for parents and a waiting area where they will be greeted. “This will streamline it so that everybody feels seen and heard and welcomed,” said Donovan.

New conference rooms will be bright, welcoming, flexible spaces that can be adapted for meetings of different sizes, with offices strategically placed to provide access to counseling and child study team services.  “We will use light very purposefully,” she added, to take advantage of the tall windows to bring light to the conference rooms and offices.

Donovan looks forward to completion of the renovations by the end of summer, “ready for fall 2021 with a whole new counseling suite to meet the needs of the students.”

She plans to send out a survey to students this spring to ask them to suggest particular additions they’d like to see in the suite. “Mental health books? A meditation area? Particular kinds of lighting? I’ll use a lot of student feedback to customize the design once the major construction is done,” she said.

Pandemic Counseling

Donovan described some of the issues involved in working with students who are struggling in the pandemic. Her counselors have been “about 10 times busier than usual,” she said. “They’re overwhelmed right now. That’s  a testament to my counseling department. They’re doing everything they can to meet the needs of our students and it’s overwhelming.”

She went on, “We’re going to need to move towards a trauma-informed program to  respond to the effects of the pandemic. Even if the student wasn’t directly affected, there is overarching secondary trauma in our community and our country that we’re going to focus on.”

She noted that all the school counselors are trained in mental health issues and that the counselors and the entire faculty have recently been trained in trauma-informed practices.

She added that school counseling had been undergoing significant changes long before the pandemic. “There really didn’t used to be that focus on the social-emotional aspect, and that has really changed,” she said.

More recently, Donovan noted, there has been a shift in attitudes towards and acceptance of virtual counseling and tele-health. The counselors are all looking forward to having all the students back in school and coming into the guidance offices, but she pointed out some benefits to virtual interactions. “Students who normally wouldn’t be comfortable coming in, there’s now a way to connect with them and they can maintain their privacy,” she said.

She continued, “Now with a click of a button they can access their school counselor. In some cases it has increased accessibility, and taken away any stigma because other students don’t see the student walking down to a counseling office. They’re in the privacy of their own home. There have been some benefits I’m very happy about.” 

Donovan reflected on other possible benefits to emerge from the pandemic.  “Something that’s come out of COVID is that everybody has had a moment to take a breath and to look at their lives and maybe assess what’s important and what isn’t,” she said. “Something that we’ve realized is really important is human connection. Trying to maintain that human connection while being remote in the spring and now kind of alternating through our building in a hybrid fashion has been challenging, but not something that we’ve shied away from.”

Donovan described a number of programs and initiatives that her department has implemented in the past year, emphasizing that the counseling department is “constantly trying to innovate and meet the needs of our families. Also to make sure that every child has an advocate here, and that they’re known and seen and heard.”

She looks forward to some semblance of “normal” in the newly designed counseling suite by next fall. “Our offices have always been busy,’ she said. “The counselors will enjoy having all the students back and coming in constantly.”

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