In a pandemic, CUSD’s team of school psychologists learn new ways to work

By Cathi Douglas

Constraints dictated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are forcing school psychologists to utilize innovative new ways to do their work.

Capistrano Unified has about 50 school psychologists who assess students’ learning disabilities, family situations, mental and emotional issues, and other psychological concerns and recommend measures to accommodate their education. Before COVID-19, they met face-to-face with students and families and employed tests, background research, and strict protocols – all paper-based.

“With the pandemic, a lot of assessment was difficult because we couldn’t use some of our tests,” says Heidi Mejia, lead school psychologist. “Now our batteries of tests have been altered and a lot more technology is involved. With virtual testing, there has been a learning curve for psychologists.”

When last spring’s quarantine halted in-person assessment activities, the school psychologists turned their attention to background research, writing, and organization as they waited for things to normalize.

After five long months, the team in mid-September resumed their work with students and families.

“When we were able to start assessments again, we took extraordinary measures to train and prepare our team,” said Danielle C. Clark, director of related services for CUSD.

“The district provided clear shields, facemasks, gloves and other personal protection equipment,” she explains. “Our appointments are socially distanced.”

With schools reopening, there was a great deal of anxiety among teachers, parents, and students. The school psychologists felt ready to help.

“Everyone is still adjusting, but we’re getting there,” says Mejia, “as we relearn routines and learn the new normal. Kids who are still distance learning are struggling the most. Those who are in the schools are adjusting – their friends are not all there.”

As the school psychologists are learning new ways of doing things, they are finding that necessity really is the mother of invention, she says.

“We should always be aware of sanitation and keeping our materials cleansed,” Mejia said.

Even people who were resistant to technology are using Zoom and other apps to host parties, see family members, and share documents, she notes. Technology also allows parents and families who couldn’t participate in assessment meetings to join in via technology on their lunch breaks or in their cars on breaks.

Coronavirus has leveled the playing field, Clark says.

“No matter what we have going on in our personal lives we are all homeschool teachers,” she says. “We have a common place now regardless of socioeconomic or other factors. It’s a different mindset, a common struggle.

“In the past some inequities were more glaring, but the shared experience of the pandemic has helped us build relationships between families and students and psychology teams,” she says. “We are more trusting and helpful.”

Our world is different now, Clark observes, and everyone is learning to go through the struggle together. Colleagues are checking in with each other and offering social and emotional support to one another.

Adapting to change, including using masks and other protective equipment, takes time.

“Psychologists are seen as the purveyors of the message that we can get through this together,” Mejia notes. “We need to be patient and get through this. We are all learning to be more efficient, master new technology, be more patient, and become more grateful for what we have, and appreciate what we no longer have.”

These days, whenever the team members see each other in person, it’s like a celebration.

“People are giving each other more grace because we are learning and going through these changes together,” she said.

As the team celebrates National School Psychology Week and kicks off the year with the theme “Power of Possibility,” Clark declares, “The pandemic has changed the way we do our work.”

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