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A Northeast Kingdom guidance counselor on fearful kids, irate parents during pandemic

A photo of a snowy driveway with a blue sky and a hill in the background, and an American flag.
Erica Heilman
/
For VPR
The view from Brighton Elementary in Island Pond.

For two years, teachers and school staff have managed rapidly changing COVID protocols. In a series airing all week, independent producer Erica Heilman talks with teachers, administrators and staff in the Northeast Kingdom. In this story, Erica talks with Judy Castonguay. She was the guidance counselor at Brighton Elementary in Island Pond for 24 years.

Judy Castonguay: "You know, a lot of kids come to my office for many reasons. And a kid just came to my office and said, 'I just want to talk.'

"'Well, what do you want to talk about?' 'I don't know what I want to talk about,' she said. So we just were playing a game and all of a sudden, she started to cry. And I said, ‘Why?’ And she finally just said, ‘I'm scared. I'm scared I'm gonna die, or my mom's gonna die.’

"When she told me she didn't know what she wanted to talk about, I think she really didn't know. But it wasn't until she just kind of sat with it for a while that, that she realized that she was scared."

"We just were playing a game and all of a sudden, she started to cry. And I said, ‘Why?’ And she finally just said, ‘I'm scared. I'm scared I'm gonna die, or my mom's gonna die.’"
Judy Castonguay, guidance counselor at Brighton Elementary for 24 years

Erica: "What’s your own arc with this? I mean, there have been so many chapters to it, you know, that are... it's always changing. Can you see a sort of a, a shape to how you have reacted to it as a school person?"

Judy Castonguay: "You know, most of us, we get up, you go to work every day. And unless you're a brand new person, you get into a routine, you know, you have your routine, you know what to expect every day. And there's a certain, I don't know if you could say comfort, but you know, you know what to expect from your working world.

"And in a school, it has taken absolutely that away, that routine, that comfort of knowing what's going to happen today. I mean there's always crises going on, there's always different things, but you don't even know how you're going to teach, or how you're going to deliver services, or who's going to make some rule that you can't follow, that kind of thing.

"And every day, it's different. Every day, I might be online, I might be teaching in person, I might have to do two different lessons… every day it's like you're starting a new job all over again."

Erica: "Have you had a memorable exchange with a parent? During COVID?"

Judy Castonguay: "Well I did have a parent call, you know, one time, so angry, when their classroom got closed down because of COVID. And the kid had to stay home. And you know, ‘Don't you understand I have to go to work? What am I supposed to do with my kid?’

"You know, that feeling of blame to the school, ‘But we were trying to keep your kids safe, I know it’s hard.’ ‘Well, what are you going to do? My kids is going to be home alone all day.’ You know, I could hear that person's frustration, you know, understandably so.

More from VPR: Go inside this Island Pond elementary school as it tries to stay on top of COVID protocols

"'When I have to take time off with my job and my family is losing money. Or if I go to work, I have to leave my kid home alone all day. What's the school going to do about that?’ And the school can't do anything about that. But the feeling that maybe… should we be doing something about that? Should we be hiring people to be babysitters? Just that feeling of frustration."

Erica: "You know the other thing that teachers, kids, people work with children, right? I mean, if somebody called me and had argued or started a complaint, you know, I'm perfectly welcome to say, ‘Talk to the hand.’ There's this understanding, this assumption that people who work in schools are not allowed to push back. Does that feel like true?"

Judy Castonguay: "I think, I think that is a valid assumption and sometimes you have to, but you do want to establish relationships with families. You always want to have good relationships with families, because it affects the kid. When you have a positive relationship with the family and the parents, then your relationship with the kid is better, and you have that home and school interaction that's so important to a kid’s well-being and health.

"So I think pushing back is hard to do, because you don't want to destroy a relationship. Because the kid gets caught in the middle."

" I did have a parent call, you know, one time, so angry, when their classroom got closed down because of COVID. And the kid had to stay home. And you know, ‘Don't you understand I have to go to work? What am I supposed to do with my kid?’"
Judy Castonguay, guidance counselor at Brighton Elementary for 24 years

Erica: "Can you just tell people who don't know a teacher... what is a teacher?"

Judy Castonguay: "You're always on. It's not just standing up in front of a classroom and teaching. What are you going to teach? And how are you going to teach it? You don't just go home and your day is over. You go home and in the back of your mind you’re thinking about social studies tomorrow morning, and how am I going to do that?

"And gosh, you know, Nancy hates social studies and she never gets along with Jimmy, so I need to pair them in a different group. You get there in the morning and you have to teach a math lesson and all of a sudden, you know, you see a kid who has just come in from the playground and takes off his boots and you see they’ve got rubber boots and no socks. And where's your coat?

"And then you have to send them to the nurse's office and the nurse says, ‘Well I don't have any mittens today.’ And then what are you going to do? Can I send them home without their mittens? So all day long, you're worried about… Oh, my God, then it's recess time, and, ‘You can't go out to recess because it's too cold,’ and the kid starts to cry, and all of that, just all of that is on your mind constantly.

"And what's happening at home? I'll never forget, a kid came in with their inhaler, and it smelled like smoke, and you're thinking to yourself, ‘What's going on in this kid's life?’ So just that feeling that the school should be a safe haven, and the school is expected to be a social services agency.

"And in some ways it is. But during the pandemic, it's gotten much larger, because it's really now the place that I think people have identified that kids really need to go to feel healthy, happy and whole. And I don't know… it's just an enormous task."

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