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FAQs: Virtual School Counseling Ethics

(Updated March 25, 2020)

Getting Started
What are the first steps to start a virtual/distance school counseling program?
  • Work with your administrator and district office to establish the parameters and norms.
  • Be informed.
  • Stay in communication with school personnel as needed.
  • Advocate when necessary and appropriate.
What are some things to consider when establishing a virtual school counseling program?
  • Follow school and district policies and procedures.
  • Work with your administrator to disseminate information to families about what the program will entail.
  • Set specific “office hours.”
  • Establish clear virtual boundaries.
  • Update the school and school counseling program website regularly. 
  • Consider listing emergency and after-hours resources on your website for 24/7 access by students and families.
  • Develop a protocol for student crisis.
FERPA and HIPPA: What guidelines should school counselors follow in virtual school counseling?
School counselors have expressed much angst regarding whether or not the platform they’re being asked to use is Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant. HIPAA does not apply to elementary or secondary schools except in “in a few limited circumstances” (USDOE and USDHHS, 2019, p. 8).   
Schools that receive federal funds are not HIPAA-covered entities, because the health information maintained on a student’s record is an education record and covered by Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Use the platform your district has assigned because this is safest for you. If the district did not vet the platform for privacy, you may need to advocate for a change, but you do not have to worry about whether the platform is HIPAA compliant; even mental health providers who are under contract and control of the district are covered under FERPA, not HIPAA. 
If your school is private and receives no federal funds, you may encounter an unusual case in which someone who bills for health care might fall under HIPAA. For example, “if a private elementary or secondary school not subject to FERPA employs a physician who bills a health plan electronically for the care provided to students (making the school a HIPAA-covered entity), the school must comply with the HIPAA rules regarding the individually identifiable health information of its patients” (USDOE and USDHHS, 2019, p. 8). Get all the information you need on how HIPAA and FERPA intersect and an easy-to-read chart.

What are some things I can do to ensure confidentiality?
It is important to note that we cannot completely "ensure" confidentiality in an online setting given our limitations. We cannot know the student is alone, for example. However, these practices can help work toward this ideal:
  • Use headphones with a microphone, and suggest students do as well. 
  • Use a white noise machine to help prevent others from overhearing private conversations
  • Identify a separate or private room. (You may think you are starting with an academic topic, but the discussion may venture into other areas.)
Do I need a signed release before meeting with a student virtually?
It is recommended to follow the policies of your school. If students do not sign releases to meet with you in your typical role on site at your school, it may not be necessary to get additional permission. However, it is important to follow the policies established by your school district, particularly in relation to the move to online learning.
My school wants school counselors to record phone calls or virtual meetings with students and families. Is this something I should do?
It depends. For academic advising or college-related topics, this may be okay as long as you let the student and family know ahead of time that the session is being recorded. Obviously, you will not be able to have private (confidential) conversations with students given that these will be recorded and made available to administration.
Can school counselors take home educational records if asked to do so by an administrator?
There is no prohibition against teachers and school counselors taking home educational records, assuming the school counselors/teachers are school officials with legitimate educational interests, which they probably are. They should just be sure to protect the information they take home and ensure other people who are not school officials or parents don’t see the information.  
Can I run a virtual small group?
It is possible to hold a group virtually. However, you need to weigh the confidentiality considerations, which may be tricky to uphold in a virtual setting, with the need and purpose the group will fill. Work with your administrator to determine the best course of action. 

Our school provided laptops to our students. Through a monitoring system our school district uses, we are seeing some of the things students are searching. These include issues such as substance use, rape and suicide. What is our legal obligation when we see these searches?
An internet search doesn't necessarily indicate serious and foreseeable harm to self or others but could.  If the monitoring system is in place, always alert parents if a suicide topic is being researched, and provide community resources and ask the parents to seek outside resources to address what is going on with their child. The district needs to determine a way to respond to serious concerns without burdening the school counselors and also determine which topics will trigger a call to parents. Perhaps an administrator could be responsible for this since the monitoring system is already in place anyway. The administrator and school counselor could collaborate about issues requiring outreach from the school to the student and families. The school district may want to see if the software has an alert that will skip the school and go right to the parent/family. Districts may also consider working with parents and families about how to appropriately monitor their child’s online activity.
Virtual Counseling Platforms
What are some considerations when using a specific platform for virtual/distance school counseling?
  • Read the privacy policies of the platforms your school system uses. 
  • Know limitations of the district’s platform.
  • Advocate for a change if the platform is thought to be detrimental.
  • Don’t select or use a platform without district approval.
What are some platform options?
  • Skype for Business/Microsoft Teams
  • Updox
  • VSee
  • Zoom 
  • Doxy.me
  • Google G Suite
  • Hangouts Meet by G Suite
  • Adobe Connect
Personal Electronic Devices
Can I use my personal cell phone to talk with students and families?
It is recommended to use school-issued devices. However, if the school has not provided you with devices, you may need to discuss the possibility of using your own devices. If it is decided that you will use your personal device, it’s important to develop boundaries around your working hours and communicate this to students and families. In addition, be sure you maintain these boundaries, such as not answering the phone at times you are not able to assist a student. It would be helpful to use away messages or other communications to direct students to where they may get help outside of your available working hours.   
If you want to block a phone number, you can follow these steps:
  • Enter *67.
  • Enter the number you wish to call (including area code).
  • Tap Call. The words "Private," "Anonymous" or some other indicator will appear on the recipient's phone instead of your mobile number.
Insurance Coverage
Does my ASCA-provided insurance cover tele-counseling?
The coverage provided with the ASCA membership includes coverage for tele-counseling as long is this is part of your school counseling activities. The limit is $1 million per occurrence/aggregate, and it pays after the school coverage has paid. Students who are ASCA members and in master’s programs are covered by ASCA’s liability insurance for activities that are part of the university’s practicum/internship program/requirements.

How do I obtain ASCA insurance?
Insurance is free for ASCA professional and student members. Click here for more information about membership and here for more information about ASCA’s insurance program
Student or School Community Deaths and Suicide Reporting Protocol
What do I do in the event of a student or school community death? 
  • Gather the crisis team
  • Inform relevant parties
  • Counseling to provide support opportunities to students affected
  • Provide information/access to community resources and support
The differences may be that the crisis team meeting will be via Zoom or some other video conferencing tool. By informing relevant parties, this may be email or some other way, considering on the school and the age appropriateness of the news. 
Given the students are with the families (and not at school), it is prudent to inform families first of such situations. The parents/guardians can then decide how best to tell their child. School counselors may still reach out via videoconferencing to affected students and may hold some sort of online peer group support.
If the death is a student suicide, we will want to be even more thoughtful/intentional as others may be influenced (contagion). Therefore, we recommend connecting with community-based agencies who might be able to provide additional phone or online support to students who need it.
What do I do if I suspect a student may be suicidal?
Your school/district should have a protocol in place for working with students who may be suicidal. Follow that protocol. Here are additional steps:
If you are working with a student who appears to be experiencing a suicidal crisis, begin at Step 1. If you are informed of a student who may be having a suicidal crisis by another member of the school community, proceed to Step 2 below. 

Step 1: If a student you are working with appears to be having a suicidal crisis use active listening:
  • to establish a trusting relationship with the student
  • to decrease the intensity of the student’s emotions
  • to ask about the student’s current state and plan or means to carry it out

Step 2: Inform parents/families.
If you are in direct contact with the student in crisis, maintain video/voice contact with student while this contact is made, if possible. For example, you might ask the student to bring the phone/laptop to the parent/guardian if the parent/guardian is in the same place as the student.

  • Convey the information you have. 
  • If risk may be high and parents cannot be reached or are not with the student, contact local police to do a wellness check.

Step 3. Document information received, decisions made and actions taken per the school district directives.

Step 4. Consult with another school counselor or student instructional support personnel to review steps, if possible.

Step 5. Notify your appropriate administration about the situation.

Step 6. Follow up.

  • Refer family to community resources.
  • Follow up with the student and family.

Step 7. If relevant, follow up with the friend(s) or other individual who referred the suicidal student to ensure the student continues to have support.

If you have questions about the ethics of virtual school counseling that aren't answered here, share them on Twitter (ASCAtweets) or Facebook (AmericanSchoolCounselorAssociation) with #SCVirtualEthics.