Helping Students Through Pandemic Grief and Trauma

As the world confronts this global health crisis, educators are also charged with helping students through the grief and trauma. SLJ spoke with mental health experts for advice and resources to meet the psychological and emotional needs of kids and adults.

On the surface, the nationwide school shutdown, part of the attempt to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, seems like a universal experience for students and educators. But like the K–12 world itself, experiences vary widely, and there is no singular answer to addressing the trauma, grief, and concerns of students, both remotely and when schools reopen.

“We’re all struggling adjusting to a new reality, but it’s hard to say how this situation will affect everybody,” says Matthew Cruger, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “If it’s a public trauma, like a horrible hurricane or weather event, we know the way that would impact everybody in a more regular way. [With coronavirus], we don’t know what effect it will have on all of the kids who are dealing with this. Some kids may be doing very well, others may be very stressed, and others may have a personal connection to grief if there’s unemployment or someone who’s sick or someone who’s passed away.”

While children struggle with their individual situations, educators may feel powerless, but they are not.

“One of the things teachers and educators are empowered to do at this point is just to try to maintain some connections,” says Cruger.

Many have seen the videos of teacher car caravans waving to students at their homes, or the math teacher who brought his whiteboard to a student’s front steps and taught through the door. But this extreme level of interaction—which is not possible for many—is not needed to show students they care. Educators just need to communicate to their students that they wish they were together, that this physical break is a necessary health precaution, but that everyone will adjust, and there are reasons to be hopeful about the future. Remember, kids can spot when adults are disingenuous.

"Educators want to be optimistic but not unrealistic," Rutgers University professor of psychology Maurice J. Elias wrote in an email. "In order to be credible, educators must avoid saying what they really don't know to be true, like 'Everything will be fine' or 'I am sure they will get better.' [It's] more valuable to say, 'I have confidence that doctors and others will keep working on this and learn more and more every day about how the virus works,' or 'It's important to read and listen to different experts so we can better understand what's happening and what the best things to do are.'"

The best way to help the general school population is by reminding students that their teachers care. Virtual readalouds can give kids that feeling of connection.

“Our school librarian has been functioning primarily as a source of comfort, particularly to our younger readers,” Julia Guthrie, a fourth grade teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Palisades Park, NJ, wrote in an email. “Our librarian has been recording stories for our students (with the publisher’s permission, of course). As a parent, I can personally attest to the magic of having a familiar figure read to your child. My kids light up when a new video gets posted. It’s such a testament to the power of books as a community builder. Right now, readalouds (my amazing principal does them nightly as well) are a major part of what is keeping us together as a school.”

Across the country, school counselors are working to adjust as well. School counseling directors and supervisors are attending weekly virtual meetings. 

“Discussions have centered on legal issues related to online counseling, college applications, virtual college fairs, and much more,” Jim Lukach, executive director of the New Jersey School Counselor Association, wrote in an email. He has also been speaking regularly with his counterparts across the country.

 

Dealing with school deaths

Any issues surrounding online counseling take on more urgency in districts where a member of the school community has died from COVID-19. Across the country, schools have lost teachers, principals, coaches, bus drivers, and security personnel to the virus.

“Some mode of acknowledging the loss of people who are important to us is essential,” says Cruger, who admits that’s more difficult to do remotely, and the inability to physically congregate to say goodbye will influence the impact. When schools reopen, they should plan some way to honor those who have died.

In the meantime, districts should be direct and honest in their release of information and make resources available for students and staff.

“The cautionary point might be about sharing too much information, expecting that everyone in the community wants to talk about what their reactions are,” says Cruger.

Kids often share in pieces and need time before they are ready to discuss a trauma, says Kristen Jezior, a clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Don’t ask students to talk about what they are going through, “but still make space for them to share” when ready, she says.

Teachers with social-emotional learning (SEL) in their curriculum should be using those skills and lessons now, according to Elias, who is director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab and co-director of the College of St. Elizabeth's Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools.

"Because SEL is practiced so differently in so many schools, there is no single recommendation about how to use it during the pandemic other than to say, 'Use it!'" he says. "Find ways to draw upon lessons done, rather than trying to blaze new ground."

During remote learning, Elias recommends trying to replicate the morning meeting/check-in that typically happens in schools, particularly in elementary school.

“We know children miss their school, their classmates, and teachers and other staff members in the school," he says. "So a natural question would be, ‘Who is someone from school that you were thinking about yesterday or today? What feeling do you have when you are thinking about that person?’” he said. “This can be done verbally in a Zoom group, by having students write their answer in a chatbox, by having them depict it in some way, or selecting an emoji for that person.”

 

Educators in crisis

Often lost in this discussion is that educators, too, are going through this ordeal. They are struggling with changes in schedule and teaching methods, many are trying to help their own children, and others are dealing with the deaths of family, friends, and colleagues.

“As a teacher, you need to take care of yourself to take care of others,” says Jezior, noting that teachers will be modeling how to handle the anxiety and grief to their students. 

The experts agree that educators should reach out for help when needed, whether for a student they feel is in crisis or for themselves.

"Every educator should have a go-to person to speak with about their challenges," says Elias. "If it can't be a formal supervisor, then it should be a colleague or school support professional. Teaching is challenging under normal situations. What is happening now is that many teachers are learning more than they knew about the challenges their students are facing. Often, they have been facing these issues all along; now, many of these are exacerbated. These are challenges teachers often cannot solve; they can't even dispense a caring hug. However, extra words of support, concern, optimism, and confidence will go a long way for their students and will help teachers cope."

Librarians and teachers must be aware of how they are feeling to make sure they are properly serving their students. If educators find themselves highly emotional or oversharing with students, it is a sign to take a step back, according to Cruger. Don’t be “immune” to your emotions, he says, but be aware that your emotional state can influence the message you send kids.

“Feeling as an educator like you have to talk a lot more about an experience that is affecting you—as opposed to taking the lead from the child, as far as what they want to know—is one of the things to look out for,” says Cruger.

Despite the many variables in this unique situation, there is one standard in dealing with trauma and grief that still applies, Cruger says.

“What we share with children should be direct, should be very clear, and should be related to what they want to know.”

 

Going Back

Many states have already closed school for the year. Some governors have not made the call, hoping to get a few weeks back in person. But whenever staff and students return to the buildings, it will not be the same even if the community has not lost someone to COVID-19. Not only will there likely be health precautions in place such as social distancing and new disinfecting policies, the kids—and adults—will be different from the experience.

"When schools open, it is essential that they do not try to get back to normal," Elias says. "Whenever they restart, time must be set aside for coming together, grieving, and healing. This should take the first one to three weeks of the school year. Student and staff social-emotional and character competencies should be at the forefront." 

Schools should not only memorialize staff or other school community members who died, but also help students recognize the efforts of those who kept more lives from being lost, according to Elias.

"That includes doctors, EMS workers, everyone working in the food supply, pharmacists and their assistants, takeout food deliverers, transportation workers," he says, suggesting that students generate lists and are educated about the supply chain—be it in medicine, nutrition, or media—people who kept things going for everyone else and may have been sickened or killed in the process. "Kids need to learn this. And they need to appreciate the losses of these individuals during the pandemic. If good is to come out of this still-unfolding tragedy, it will be in part that our children will have a heightened sense of gratitude for how the world works and how much they are dependent on a wide array of others for their needs and comforts."

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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