College case managers find they are needed more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Students cope with quarantine and isolation, as well as food insecurity and mental health issues.
  • Case managers reach out to quarantined students to make sure they are OK.
  • Case managers might help patients connect with outside mental health services if they need these instead of on-campus counseling.

College case managers work to help students navigate crises, traumas, and other problems that can affect their educational lives. But some have found the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that affects more students for longer than any previous emergencies they have helped students manage.

“We haven’t had any students hospitalized for COVID, but we have had students test positive for COVID and who are isolated, which is why we hired a temporary case manager for these students,” says Jessica V. Lombardi, MA, LPCC, associate director for care and crisis management with the University Health and Counseling Services at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland.

CWRU is using a hybrid model during the pandemic. Fewer than half its usual numbers of students are living on campus, and the others are attending classes remotely.

“The [COVID] case manager’s job is to check in with anyone who is quarantined or isolated to see how their mental health and physical health are doing,” Lombardi says.

The pandemic case manager’s office is in the university’s health services, making it easier to meet with a campus doctor to describe a student’s medical symptoms. “She’s a conduit for those students in isolation/quarantine and health services,” Lombardi says. “The case manager makes sure their mental health needs are being met and provides clinical help to them, putting them in direct contact with medical providers to help with medical issues.”

Quarantine Support

Case managers also run the school’s quarantine support space, which is a virtual support group for students in quarantine or isolation. “It’s offered three days a week for students to drop in and say, ‘I’m having a tough time’ or ‘I really just need to talk,’” Lombardi explains. “It’s a regular individual check-in via a Zoom link with a care manager.”

The pandemic case manager also has found that students need additional support when they come out of their quarantine. “This was not something we expected,” Lombardi says.

The pandemic has affected college students in multiple ways, including emotionally, financially, and academically. “What we’re seeing a lot of right now is students who I describe as having gone completely off the grid,” says Katherine Hettinger, LPC, manager of Auburn Cares at Auburn University. “They signed up for online classes for the semester, maybe logged in for one or two, completed a couple of assignments, and then stopped. Instructors call them and say, ‘I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks,’ and the students are not responding.”

This can happen in any college semester, but it is much more frequent during the pandemic. “When we get in touch with these students, they say they’re struggling and didn’t know the online classes would be as hard as they are,” she explains. “They struggle with organizational skills and are stressed and depressed, so we track people down to make sure they’re OK.”

Financial, Social Anxiety Increasing

Case management can help students cope with quarantine, particularly when this isolation means students cannot go to work and now have no income for food. For instance, the college saw an increase in students using the campus food bank when the school moved to virtual classes, Hettinger says.

“Students with off-campus jobs suddenly were unable to work, especially those in hospitality and restaurants, which ground to a halt,” she adds. “Students exposed to someone who has COVID-19 have to quarantine for 14 days. For those who need to work to pay their bills, being quarantined is the difference between being able to eat and not.”

The pandemic also has interfered with students’ sense of belonging on campus. “One of the biggest challenges when they come to campus is finding a social group and having friends and getting involved,” Hettinger explains. “In the COVID world, it is infinitely more difficult.”

Students want to connect, become involved, and make friends. However, they are limited in their ability to do so.

Many college students who have returned home and are enrolled in online classes have lost their social connection and newfound adult freedom, says Tom Bennett, higher education recovery coordinator with Acadia Healthcare of Franklin, TN.

“These wings they were beginning to spread have been clipped,” Bennett says. “Tensions and tempers run short when they’re at home. Sometimes they have siblings in another school and they don’t get along, so it can be stressful and create some issues.”

College case managers can help with students experiencing anxiety and depression during the pandemic. With social media, identifying students with these issues is a little easier.

“In one sense, social media is good for us because students are putting it out there,” Hettinger says. “We have situations, like one recently where a student was communicating with a friend in a text thread or group meet and said, ‘I tried to kill myself last night and it didn’t work, and I’ve been very depressed.’”

When the suicidal student was contacted and denied attempting suicide, the friend showed the text messages. “This is a way to do welfare checks and see if maybe the student needs to be hospitalized,” Hettinger says. “We have two clinical case managers who keep a list of providers for students who are not appropriate for our counseling center on campus. Our students get 10 sessions per year, but if they need more than that, or if their situation is complex, the office maintains a list of off-campus providers. We share that list with students as they call in and request services.”