Editor’s note: Several residents have risked their own safety and/or overcome personal obstacles in order to help keep the community going during the coronavirus pandemic. This series provides a glimpse into their lives and work. They are ... The Essentials.

When Sara Pender was in college studying to be a counselor, none of her classes ever touched on virtual counseling.

But when the coronavirus hit and Detroit Lakes High School students were required to stay home from school in favor of distance learning, Pender had no choice but to figure out how to counsel kids over the computer. And she had to figure it out fast.

“I’ve learned probably just as much as the kids have about technology and how to do things,” Pender said in a phone interview in mid-April. The high school closed on March 17, and its distance learning program began March 30.

Pender has been a counselor for 19 years, the past 15 of those at Detroit Lakes High School. She is one of three counselors at the school, working with kids whose last names begin with the letters H through N, in grades nine through 12. Having the same students throughout their four years of high school helps Pender get to know them and their families well.

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“It just helps with that relationship building,” she said.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped her from building and maintaining those relationships, though she said it has changed how that happens. Almost everything now is done through a screen.

“I spend my entire day now either on my email or doing face-to-face meetings through Google Meet or Zoom, or on the phone,” Pender said.

She maintains a schedule of contacting certain students on Mondays, others on Wednesdays, etc., and does what she can to keep that “little bit of continuity” she had with them in school: “I try to keep that normalcy,” she said.

The experience, while different, has actually worked well for Pender. She said the parents have been very understanding and easy to work with, and she’s still able to help her students in effective ways. Still, it’s not the same.

“I think every kid I’ve talked to has said something along the lines of, ‘We wish we were back in school,’” Pender said. “I wish you were back, too.”

Sara Pender (Submitted photo)
Sara Pender (Submitted photo)

Collaboration and flexibility are key

When the Detroit Lakes High School staff started the daunting process of converting their classes and other work to the internet, they figured it out together, Pender said.

“Everyone is very helpful, kind of working together, making sure we can get this done,” she said. They continue to support each other through email threads and other digital communications, sharing tips and information about various computer programs, platforms and technologies that meet their needs or wants.

Doreen Richter, one of the other counselors at the school and a close friend of Pender’s, said she thinks Pender has successfully adjusted to the changes because “she’s always willing to take on new things and try new things.”

While most of the counseling work is done virtually now, almost all of it has stayed the same in terms of duties, Pender said. Mental health support is still available, she continues her normal student check-ins, and teachers are still referring students to counselors, though now it’s often because students aren’t checking in for daily attendance or haven’t been submitting their work online. Office duties, such as preparing transcripts, are still there as well.

“It’s definitely more flexible,” Pender said of her work schedule these days. “I will get emails at night. That’s just sometimes when kids are online doing stuff … We can’t expect that they’re going to have a normal school day at home.”

Related:

Pender is Advanced Placement coordinator, and a big change is how she prepares students for the AP tests, which influence their college credits and classes. The testing process will look a lot different this year.

Another big change for Pender is how Advanced Placement (AP) testing is being done. As the AP coordinator, she spends time every spring preparing the school’s AP students for their AP tests, which influence their college credits and classes. The testing process will look a lot different this year.

“Those tests are all going to be online, they’re going to be timed, open book, open note, and they’re going to be primarily essay,” Pender said. The tests will have software that checks for plagiarism and, “instead of being several hours, now they’re going to be 45 minutes.”

A sharper focus on routine and boundaries

School counselors such as Pender are tasked with helping their students cope in trying times, even as they’re dealing with some of the same strains and struggles themselves.

Pender has found that the most effective way to work through the physical, mental and emotional toll of the coronavirus pandemic is to stick to her normal routine as much as possible.

“I have to get up and get ready like I’m going to go to work,” she said, even on days when she doesn’t go into the high school. Keeping that schedule and maintaining the perspective that “This is not forever” keeps her from feeling too down or overwhelmed.

Since her work days have much more fluid hours now, Pender has also made sure she creates work-life boundaries.

“When my work day is done, I try to get off my computer for a while and be with my family,” she said. “That time is the time I’m a mom.”

Those boundaries did exist before the pandemic, but have become more prominent. That work-life balance is one of the things Richter really appreciates about Pender.

Family time is important to Detroit Lakes High School counselor Sara Pender. She and her family, husband Mason Pender, left, Pender and daughters Isla (age 13) and Greta (10 took a family ski trip to Red Lodge Mountain in Montana this winter. (Submitted photo)
Family time is important to Detroit Lakes High School counselor Sara Pender. She and her family, husband Mason Pender, left, Pender and daughters Isla (age 13) and Greta (10 took a family ski trip to Red Lodge Mountain in Montana this winter. (Submitted photo)

“She has two girls at home, and then her husband and a dog, and she does have to balance that. It’s just amazing to me,” Richter said. “She can find that balance and be emotionally and physically available for students and coworkers, and her family.”

Being with family more is a silver lining for Pender, who said she’s noticed that her family members have become more patient with each other as they’ve spent more time together.

Patience seems to have spread among other community members, too: Pender’s noticed how much the Detroit Lakes community has helped each other and how kind people have been.

“In a time that we’re in right now, it’s really nice to see the helpers,” she said.

The essentials of Sara Pender

Title: Detroit Lakes High School counselor

Job duties: Check in with students, either after a teacher recommendation or as they walk in; plan and execute group counseling sessions; prepare students for Advanced Placement tests; normal office work.

The impact of social distancing: Pender and the other counselors now work more flexible hours, and they plan it so only one of them is at the school at a time. The rest of the time, they’re working from home. All of their student and parent interactions are done virtually now, through video conferencing or emails, or by phone. There are no group counseling sessions.

What you've done to cope: Spent time outside, kept up on sleep and eaten healthy. Also: “I think it’s important to set boundaries. When my work day is done, I try to get off my computer for a while and be with my family … And just to keep perspective. This is not forever.”

What you’ll remember most about this time: “I would like to remember how we all helped each other. In times that we’re in right now, it's really nice to see the helpers. And because of that, maybe we all are a little kinder to anyone.”

Favorite quote: “One that I’ve seen go around a lot is Fred Rogers. The quote is: ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’’ That’s the one I think about a lot.”

Favorite quote: Pender cites this Fred Rogers quote: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping''."

"That’s the one I think about a lot," Pender said.

Read more from "The Essentials" series