Pandemic, protests heighten need for trauma-informed practices
Distance learning heightens the challenge of making personal connections with students, but Oregon educators are reaching out in a variety of ways to children and families. (Photo courtesy of American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)
The students returning to classes are not the same children who left schools in March. Months of pandemic fears, social isolation, economic uncertainty and heightened racial equity awareness leave an emotional mark.
In June, almost a quarter of students calling a mental health screening line for anxiety cited COVID-19 as a cause and a third cited current events, according to Mental Health America, a national nonprofit that promotes mental health care.
Oregon school leaders expect heightened student stress and are developing plans to address the trauma so learning can begin.
Adam Lustig, director of the National School Boards Association Center for Safe Schools, said schools must offer three things for returning students: safety, connections and hope.
Schools needs to check on students’ well-being and ensure they can talk with adults and each other, said Lustig. Students also need transparency and constant communication about the situation so that they know they will be able to return to school someday.
Lustig, who presented at OSBA’s Summer Board Conference on understanding trauma in a distance-learning environment, recommends schools focus on social and emotional activities the first week of school rather than diving immediately into academics. He said students need opportunities for group discussions about what is going on in their homes and the world.
The McMinnville School District will have community meetings for the first 10 days of school with activities focused on helping students connect and building community, according to Dan Sheppard, the behavior program coordinator.
Teachers have been calling every family this summer to ask how things are going and what they need. For three days before school starts, teachers will meet online with every family to make sure they are prepared for distance learning.
Instead of the district’s usual weeklong orientation for kindergarten students, teachers will meet in person with each kindergartener to get to know them. Students in transition grades will have orientation webinars, where they will meet the principal and virtually tour the school.
McMinnville School Board Chair Larry Vollmer said the district is serving students as best it can, but he expressed the widely shared frustration with not having students in the building to provide services. He said many students won’t get their needs met, especially students on learning plans or needing supports.
The Tigard-Tualatin School District has offered some in-person services for its most vulnerable students.
“This is a really scary time for some of our students with disabilities,” said Carol Kinch, director of student services. She said the partnership with parents is even more important in an online environment.
Tigard-Tualatin created a basic needs team when schools closed in March to arrange delivery of food and other necessities. Over the summer, that team’s mission has grown with family outreach, taking on higher needs including mental health and social and emotional supports.
Administrators say the pandemic and the protests have brought an urgency and a sharper focus to anti-racism and equity work the district was already doing.
Kinch said social and emotional training for teachers and lessons for students will have more of an emphasis on social justice, racial identity and anti-racism when school starts Sept. 14. The district plans to spend the first week with community- and relationship-building efforts and trauma-informed lessons, such as strategies for handling stress.
Equity and Inclusion Coordinator Zinnia Un said the pandemic has highlighted disconnected systems that don’t take into account community input.
For instance, closing the technology gap requires asking families what they need to be comfortable with the technology.
“To close the opportunity gap, we need to know the lived experiences of our families,” said Assistant Superintendent Lisa McCall. “This work is helping us see that our families’ priorities might not be the same as ours.”
She worries some schools won’t sustain equity and community building efforts once the pressure of the protests and pandemic lets up.
Reynolds School Board member Yesenia Delgado said the district’s equity focus as it reopens benefits all students.
“When we prioritize our students of color and our disadvantaged students, if we build programming around that, it tends to work for everyone,” she said. Delgado is an OSBA Legislative Policy Committee member and a representative for the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus.
Neighboring Centennial School District on the east side of Portland has been calling families to make sure they have everything they need, from school supplies to food.
“You cannot disconnect social emotional learning from equity,” said Gayle Sideris, principal for Butler Creek Elementary School. Sideris is on the Centennial School District planning committee for social and emotional learning.
Every class will have daily community meetings specifically so students can connect with peers.
“We really want to focus on building relationships, especially in those first few weeks, because kids have been gone for months now,” she said.
Teacher professional development before school opens will feature in-depth conversations about racial inequities in general and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, Sideris said.
“When you are going to address those things with students, the adults have to be prepared,” said Sideris. “Kids have questions. We need to be ready to at least accept those questions. A lot of times when we don’t know about those things, what we do is shut kids down.”
NSBA’s Lustig said staff will need mental health supports and skills as well. They are dealing with trauma in their own lives and their students’ lives while trying to teach in a completely unfamiliar situation.
“Teachers kind of feel like this is being dumped on them and they need to support the kids, but there is not necessarily the same support structures set up for them and what they are dealing with,” he said.
Tigard-Tualatin Community Relations Director Traci Rose said Student Success Act work laid community connectedness foundations that are essential to social emotional supports. The district is continuing to bring people together to talk about what they need to improve the entire education system.
“When we come out of this, we are going to be able to serve students in such a different way,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA