The role of a school counselor calls for much more than printing off class schedules and handing out college brochures. Counselors serve as multifaceted resources for their students, and as mental health challenges in teens continue to rise, their role has changed from mostly providing academic guidance and post-high school planning to serving as a social and emotional support.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and students suddenly found themselves watching lectures in their bedrooms instead of on a bustling school campus, counselors had to find new ways of connecting and continuing to support students through the everchanging circumstances. 

Sophia Hutcheon, school counselor at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica, was thrown in the deep end as she wrapped up graduate school in spring 2020. She began her counseling career remotely. Coastside magazine’s Emma Spaeth spoke with Hutcheon recently about the responsibilities of counselors and how things have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


How long have you been at Terra Nova High School? 

This is only my second year at Terra Nova and my third year as a counselor, so I’m still pretty new. I started at the best time ever, in 2020, when students were doing distance learning, and then through the transition back to in-person. We’re still trying to recover from all of that, so it’s been interesting.


What motivated you to get into counseling? 

Well, when I was in high school, I was really fortunate that I was really close to my high school counselors and they were a really big support to me. Along with helping me plan that whole post-secondary planning, they were just a support at school. I was just really lucky to have that because I know that not every student is as fortunate to have that. 

I went into college undeclared and had no idea what I wanted to do, and then I started taking different education classes and ended up minoring in that. But I guess one of the things that was always in front of my face was counseling and that that was something I might want to do. I just didn’t think I had the capability, but I pushed myself and applied to grad school even when I thought I wouldn’t get in and it was intimidating. But I’m just really thankful that I got a chance to and to be in this position now, because I do love what I do. It’s different every day and keeps me on my toes. 

My high school counselors were a really big influence on me, and now I want to support students just the way I had it when I was younger. Seeing that would just be really



What are your job responsibilities? What do you think the responsibilities of a counselor are? 

There are a lot of different responsibilities, so our days can look really different. It could be helping a ninth-grader with their four-year plan, meaning picking their classes for the next couple of years to make sure they’re on track for graduation, making sure they’re on track to meet their own goals, whether that is attending a four-year college, or maybe starting at a trade school. (It’s) just meeting them where they’re at to make sure that they’re taking the classes they need in order to move forward. It can range from that to also crisis intervention, meeting their social-emotional needs, and just being there if a student needs to talk things out with an adult. We’re there to provide community resources and connect them with what they need.

Each day could look different, and it usually does.


You mentioned that you had a really influential high school counselor when you were in school; what do you think the importance is, or the role that counselors have in schools and for students? 

I think just knowing that students feel seen and heard, and just knowing that they have a support system here on campus. Especially in those tough moments where they may feel alone, or may feel that nobody is there for them, that there’s always counselors and teachers and school staff. We have eyes everywhere and are just making sure that students know that they have that support when they need it. Just knowing that even if things are going great, that they have someone in their corner always — not just in the tough moments, but also in their big happy moments. Just always being there for them. 


What was your whole experience like with COVID-19 and working remotely? 

My last two months of grad school were entirely online, so, when I’m talking to some of the students, I’m like, I was right there with you and I know it wasn’t ideal. It was hard. 

I was also an intern at the time, because you have to have at least 800 hours to get your credential, so I was in the middle of getting my hours. And I remember having this switch from being in person to finding ways to still connect from a distance. It was tough. (At my first school), not only was it my first job out in the field, not as an intern anymore, but also having to connect with kids from a distance. But it kind of gave me a chance to find creative ways to get to know them.

So, like, over Zoom I could ask them, "What have you been doing over COVID? Anything you’ve learned? What are your takeaways?" And I had some students tell me that they’ve gotten really into different hobbies like photography. Some of them would make websites, some of them built computers, and they would show me or they would share their screen and show me what they’re working on. Sometimes their pets would come into their room, and they’d be like, "Hey, this is my pet." Sometimes you could see their parents hovering. You just started seeing their life in a different way. That was something I was really surprised about, that you could still make that connection even from far away. That was something I was really nervous about. Being a new counselor and trying to navigate my own professional identity, I just wanted the kids to know that they had somebody here, even if it was far away. 

Then, coming back in person, it was a lot of relearning. Picking up on their facial expressions or little social cues in person. And it was interesting seeing the students kind of relearn that too. 


Clearly, counselors play much more of a role at school than a purely academic one, and I’m just wondering, how do you think that the role of counselors in general has changed since March 2020? 

Well, if anything, I hope it sheds light on the need for more counselors. Our caseloads are pretty high. I have over a hundred students on my caseload and just wish that we could be there for more students at a time. Not just for the academic needs and college/career planning, but also the social emotional needs as well, and being able to give them that space to know that they’re supported throughout, because that has been a high need. It’s being addressed, but there is always room for improvement. Just really empowering the kids and knowing that they have that support here, and whether it's community resources or making like a support group, or connecting them with kids on campus. With COVID it’s really shed a lot of light on the social-emotional needs of students. It’s not just about grades. They are important, but it’s like, "How are you doing as a person?"


How many counselors do you have at Terra Nova? 

We have two school counselors, one wellness counselor and one school social worker. We’re really lucky in our district that we have a wellness team here to really address the social-emotional needs as well as if they need higher intervention. Really thankful for that. 


You started at the beginning of COVID-19, but, would you say your job and responsibilities are different because of the pandemic from what you were expecting when you were interning and in grad school? 

Yeah, just being more knowledgeable that, developmentally, students were a little stunted because of how they’re not being socialized as much at school. So being able to meet them where they’re at, and just validating their experiences. Everyone took COVID very differently. Some students really thrived in that independent environment where they were able to stay at home, and they figured out they learned better either online or independently, whereas some students really struggled because they thrive in that school environment where they are connected with their friends, especially in this age level, so being taken away from that was really, really hard. Learning and being able to meet students where they’re at was definitely a big emphasis when I was in grad school, but COVID really shed a light on that. 


I’m sure a big part of the struggle for students was just getting through that period of remote learning, but how has the transition been for students returning to campus? 

I feel like a lot of students are learning how to be a student again. It’s hard to have been in that environment for a year and a half, and then to jump into learning to be that student again. Learning how to study, how to do homework, how to follow their routine and schedule in person. 


Moving forward, how are you and the counseling staff at the school continuing to support students as they cope with this experience? 

We’ve seen the aftereffects of it, socially, emotionally, academically and just, like, planning their life after high school, because a lot of students were behind. So, being able to make sure that they have all the resources and support that they need — whatever their need is. 


As a counselor, having experienced this, what do you think you’ve learned from this experience? Is there anything you’re going to take forward in your career? 

Just be ready for anything and continue being flexible and open-minded. It’s funny, because, in grad school, they talked a lot about how this is a job where you have to be on your toes all the time, and COVID really put that into practice.

Emma Spaeth is a staff writer for the Half Moon Bay Review covering community, arts and sports. Emma grew up in Half Moon Bay before earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oregon.

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