Like many others this year, Dr. Khristi Keefe and the counseling team at Robert E. Lee (REL) High School in Jacksonville have seen the nature of their work drastically altered in the wake of a global pandemic.
“We got into this business to work with people in person,” said Keefe, early college program counselor at REL High. Earlier this year, FCAN recognized her as a 2020 College Ready Florida Innovator for helping build a college-going culture at REL through college and career-focused activities with students and families. “A lot of our work has changed as counselors.”
Although REL has been at least partly open for in-person instruction throughout the fall, the school’s counselors knew they would need to reimagine many of their student supports in order to limit face-to-face interactions during COVID-19.
“There was such an emphasis on trying to get this school year started that we had to take some activities we were working hard to build momentum on and shift them to different formats,” Keefe said.
Those activities include REL College & Career Conversations, which allows students to interact virtually with representatives from postsecondary institutions and ask them questions about their programs. Students can visit the College & Career Conversations page, view the list of presentations, and select which ones to attend virtually.
According to Keefe, the school’s pre-pandemic College & Career Conversations took place during school hours and students met face-to-face with college representatives.
“The move online has really expanded our reach to colleges that students may not normally think about applying to. We have included colleges, trade school programs, and college fairs that are near and far from the school,” Keefe said. “Students also receive Remind (app) messages about an hour before each one starts, which I load into the Remind system as the events are added to our conversation list.”
In order to help their students figure out how to pay for college, REL counselors have also adapted their Financial Aid 101 presentation for the virtual space.
Devin McFarland, who is in his 5th year as a school counselor at REL, said the presentation serves as a way to share information about financial aid, dispel some FAFSA myths, and inform students of upcoming dates and deadlines. McFarland said those presentations typically took place around December 1 prior to this school year.
“We actually already would’ve had a Fall Parent Night informing parents that this is an opportunity coming up for seniors to do some of this work in person,” McFarland said.
Due to COVID-19, REL counselors have used the Nearpod platform to transform the Financial Aid 101 presentation into an interactive slideshow they have shared with the community.
“Even though our students are at home or we can’t see them face-to-face, they still need this information,” McFarland said. “This is just another opportunity to get students to take advantage of information that is out there.”
Still, both Keefe and McFarland note that REL’s students haven’t been the only ones educating themselves by taking advantage of information and resources they’ve discovered during this pandemic.
“There have been a lot of professional development opportunities,” said McFarland, noting that the Nearpod platform was completely new to the REL team. “Overall, as a department and as a profession, I think we’ve become more efficient with the resources we have, and we’ve gotten better at being able to reach a lot more students and parents that are willing to log in online.”
“We’re all trying to do lots of different things, as far as support goes, and trying to teach ourselves quite a bit of new stuff so we can understand the stress they’re going through,” Keefe said. “We can better understand how to help them.”