The Challenges of Virtual Schooling

An interview with school counselor Madina Masumi.

Posted Oct 01, 2020

 Madina Masumi, used with permission
Professional School Counselor, Madina Masumi, M.Ed.
Source: Madina Masumi, used with permission

COVID-19 has impacted schools across the nation since March. With many students returning to virtual or altered school environments in fall 2020, our blog sought out advice and suggestions from school counselor Madina Masumi to help students and their families cope at this unique time.

Najma Khorrami and Homa Ahmadzia: What are the biggest challenges for students returning to (virtual) school during COVID?

Madina Masumi: Students thrive in environments that are structured and provide collaboration along with socialization. These are all challenges in the virtual environment. The majority of students are missing their peers, playing outdoors with friends during recess, and being part of a familiar group environment. In addition, each child lives in a different home environment that presents its own unique set of challenges. I recently spoke to a student because his teacher said he wasn’t participating in lessons or completing assignments. He shared that he lives with nine other people in a small house. He doesn’t have a desk and there are two other students in the same room as him when he is in the virtual learning setting. He’s too ashamed to turn on his camera or audio because he shared that it’s always so noisy in the background, and he doesn’t want people to see his home. Such socioeconomic factors can be shielded when school is in-person, but in the virtual setting, these inequities may affect a child’s learning.  

NK/HA: From your perspective as a school counselor, what guidance can parents and teachers offer their students returning to school?

MM: Parents and teachers are pivotal in setting students up for success. Providing structure is key. Students will be more successful in the virtual environment if they approach it the same way as in-person learning. This encompasses establishing a schedule and following consistent daily routines. We’re living through a time of ambiguity and that increases anxiety in adults and children alike. It’s important to provide consistency when it’s possible so students have a sense of control. Some examples include waking up early enough to get dressed, eat breakfast, and log into your computer. It can be helpful to provide a visual schedule of the student’s school day so they know what to expect. Ensure their learning space is quiet and free from distractions if possible. Providing students with headphones helps increase their focus. One additional item I have found to be essential is fidgets. (Fidgets are self-regulation tools that help promote focus, calming and active listening. A stress ball is one example of a fidget that also doubles as a toy.) It’s challenging for students to be on the screen all day and providing fidgets can be a useful tool to increase attention and productivity.  

NK/HA: Having kids, how are you handling balancing work with homeschooling (i.e. virtual schooling)?

MM: I’m a mom of a fifth-grader (age 10), third-grader (age 8), and 2-year-old toddler. This is not an easy time to be a parent and a professional because the worlds are more blended than ever. There is a loss of boundaries and structure across all settings. In the spring, it was a complete whirlwind of chaos, but I feel more prepared now. Taking time in advance to get organized for the week is my saving grace. Spending a couple of hours on the weekend to prepare for the week is helpful. I create a visual meal plan for the entire week, so everyone knows what to expect. I also take time to prepare some of our meals in advance to save time. I know this is not an option for everyone but it works for our family. I believe it's important right now to be comfortable with being overwhelmed, rather than feeling guilty about it. I have also become better at asking for help. It truly takes a village to raise a child. 

NK/HA: What is your advice for parents and caregivers as young students adapt to online learning while at home?

MM: My biggest piece of advice is to remain flexible and slow down your pace as a family. Families with children are accustomed to crammed schedules and finding a balance between our careers, school, and extracurricular activities. If this virus has taught us anything, it’s that we have to be able to take things as they come and make adjustments accordingly. Before COVID-19, my children were involved in over four different after school activities. Now, most of the activities have become virtual, and they don’t prefer to participate in that manner. I had to scale back and be comfortable with the fact that they’re not getting the enrichment they once were. However, it’s been replaced with a little more family time which is wonderful. Also, we are so busy caring for our families that we forget ourselves as parents. Self-care is key to remaining physically, emotionally, mentally strong. Whether it’s a small pocket of time in the morning before the day begins or in the evening, I try to take some time for myself to do something I enjoy. 

NK/HA: What type of help do school counselors like yourself need to be more successful in this challenging time?

MM: Building positive relationships and trust are essential factors of a comprehensive counseling program. Creating these dynamics virtually is challenging. Fortunately, the district I work for has provided us with a Social-Emotional Learning curriculum that transfers into the virtual setting. They have also trained teachers on how to utilize social-emotional learning tools in the virtual classroom. It’s more important now than ever to teach children these explicit skills and tools to help them recognize feelings, build self-awareness, enhance social skills, and become responsible decision-makers. The most challenging aspect of this setting for me was to learn how to utilize and navigate all the technology. I was initially overwhelmed but as the weeks have passed, it’s becoming second nature. It’s unbelievable how adaptable humans can be. We don’t always embrace change, but if we learn from every new experience, we certainly grow stronger together.

Madina Masumi, M.Ed., is a Professional School Counselor with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), the largest public school system in Virginia. She holds a concentration in School Counseling K-12. FCPS was the 12th largest school system in America in 2019.