How schools are addressing students’ mental health needs due to trauma of COVID-19

(NEW YORK) — As students return for a third school year affected by the coronavirus pandemic, trauma and grief support are top of mind among educators addressing the wide-reaching impacts of the crisis.

For many students, loss due to the pandemic hits close to home. More than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary or secondary caregiver, such as a live-in grandparent or another family member, in a COVID-19-associated death, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obtained by ABC News in late July. More than 640,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.

Most, if not all, students may have experienced loss in other ways, from financial or housing instability to a prolonged disruption to their sense of normalcy or routine.

In Georgia, Atlanta Public Schools plan to screen over 30,000 pre-K to 12th grade students on their social-emotional behavior this fall.

“Many of our students had been at home and participating virtually since March of 2020,” Shannon Hervey, director of student support and interventions for Atlanta Public Schools, told ABC News. “We don’t know what our students may have faced, and so we wanted to take a proactive approach and say, ‘Let’s get to know our students more so that we can determine what their needs are and help to provide for that.'”

The district will be screening for external behaviors like hyperactivity or aggression, and internalized risks like depression and anxiety. From there, they hope to determine what students’ needs are and how the school can support them. The district also added 25 new school social workers and plans to train employees in trauma-informed practices this year, among other measures, to address the mental health needs of its students this year.

Other school districts are also looking to bolster support around trauma and grief due to the pandemic. Chicago Public Schools had previously announced a $24 million, multiyear plan to invest in mental health and trauma support programs for students and staff. Miami-Dade County Public Schools has provided staff with social-emotional learning and mental health awareness trainings as they welcomed students back, as well as hiring 45 mental health coordinators.

Identifying and accommodating students impacted by trauma and grief are key, as those who have experienced significant loss may need long-term support in the classroom, said Maria Collins, the head of New York Life Foundation’s Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative, a program that provides resources and tools for school communities to support grieving students.

“Grief can have a serious impact on learning, academic performance, social withdrawal, behavioral issues, if not supported,” Collins told ABC News. “It’s really understanding and acknowledging that the loss exists, and this impacts how they learn and also how present they are in the classroom.”

While educators largely recognize the importance of supporting students’ emotional needs, most don’t feel they have the training to do so. A 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers found that only 15% of educators said they feel comfortable addressing the grief or trauma tied to the pandemic.

The Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative has seen an “increasing need” for support during the pandemic, Collins said, with nearly 100 schools and school districts reaching out in the past year. The organization has also partnered with the National Parent Teacher Association to help provide similar resources and support for parents.

“We’re educating new generations; we’re educating educators, parents and children about grief and grief support,” Collins said.

Dr. David Schonfeld has also seen an increase in interest from schools for grief support during the pandemic, particularly for younger students. As the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which provides schools with crisis, trauma and grief support, he’s done over 200 trainings, workshops and presentations since the pandemic started. Much of the center’s work focuses on grades K-12, though they have seen “lots of demand” at the preschool level, Schonfeld said.

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has shifted most of its training to focus on how to support students during the pandemic, which has “heightened” grief, he said.

The pandemic has “raised people’s interests and importance” of grief and trauma support, he said, “but also made it very challenging for them to find the time and have the capacity to schedule the training. Schools are frankly overwhelmed by everything they need to do. Opening the door is now a big challenge.”

Educators have also often questioned how to best support students when they themselves may be struggling with grief or trauma, Schonfeld said.

“A lot of people say, ‘What are we supposed to do? We’re grieving or we’re struggling or we’re exhausted,'” he said. “What I try and tell them is we’re really not asking classroom teachers to counsel children over the death of their parents. We’re not asking them to do therapy. We’re asking them to show sympathy and be present for the child and show concern and then maybe make accommodations to help them learn.”

Collins advocates for schools to become “grief-sensitive” and have a specific bereavement plan that can help connect families with local resources.

“We’re not saying that educators need to be grief specialists,” she said. “They just have to have the awareness and know where to refer and have the resources to give to the parents.”

For Schonfeld, the impacts of the pandemic are so wide-reaching that staff may need to support all students on some level.

“We need to figure out how to help everyone and still keep our eyes open for those who need more,” he said. “If educators know how to provide universal support, they will be better prepared to know when someone needs more than that.”

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