School districts plan COVID-19 trauma support, even as classes resume online

A teenager in Fulton County, Georgia, lost both parents to COVID-19 this summer. 

When he returns to school, staff members will be ready to help.

“There’s multiple layers to this,” said Christopher Matthews, Fulton County Schools assistant superintendent of student support services, of the district’s role in providing support. Services include everything from home visits to connecting him with school counselors, social workers or other mental health professionals and “trying to maintain as much consistency for the student.”

The district is also planning to start school with four weeks of lessons that incorporate social-emotional learning around emotions, stress management, support systems and resilience for most grade levels.

It’s just one example of how school districts are preparing to support students who have endured grief, rough home situations or other forms of trauma since schools switched to remote learning in the spring, even as delays in in-person instruction could make things more difficult. 

“I do know many schools and school districts, as they prepare for back to school — whatever that looks like — have had conversations about how they best can support everyone as we look to try and get back to some learning,” said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.

Cook said it’s not just students who have experienced trauma, but also teachers, staff, families and entire communities. And the coronavirus isn’t the only thing people are grappling with; months-long protests against police brutality and systemic racism have also left their mark.

Trauma can leave children feeling overwhelmed and impede problem-solving or reasoning abilities and behavior, according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. And, as a recent education report from the University of Melbourne points out, children who are the most at risk for more severe or ongoing psychological distress after emergency situations include those who have lost loved ones, been displaced from their homes, live in poverty or have had ongoing disruptions, such as not being able to return to school.

“It’s really important that schools have a very systematic way of addressing students’ social and emotional needs and look at it through that trauma-informed lens really before even academic learning can take place,” Cook said. “It would be very easy to think about, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s been so much instructional time missed, we must just jump right in.’ But that would really do a disservice to everyone.”

First, students need to know they’re in a safe, supportive learning environment, even if that’s online. 

Virtual support

In Los Angeles, which has had more than 200,000 coronavirus cases, students will be attending school remotely for the foreseeable future. But that hasn’t stopped leaders of the country’s second largest school district from finding ways to support students. 

Since April, the Los Angeles Unified School District has had a hotline for families to call to get help for myriad needs. Half of the 3,500 calls since have been for mental health or basic needs, said Joel Cisneros, director of school mental health for LAUSD.

Shortly after schools closed for in-person instruction in March, LAUSD launched a $100 million effort to get technological devices to every student for remote learning. That also enables every family to have access to telehealth with the district’s mental health providers. 

“We’ve continued to train our crisis team at the school sites to ensure that even though we’re in a virtual setting, in a remote setting, that they have the tools and infrastructure to be able to respond to any situation, any death or any other sort of critical incident impacting that school community,” Cisneros said. “At the end of the day, even though we’re not in the physical setting, we still are the social support for that community and for those students, and those families.”

Anthony Aguilar, chief of special education, equity and access for LAUSD, said realistically, nothing will replace in-person schooling, where teachers would ordinarily be able to pick up on students’ physical cues if something was wrong in their personal life.

“Teachers are really going to be trying to monitor that during this virtual learning with all students to ensure we have kind of a pulse to how they’re doing,” he said. 

Teachers in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools are also receiving additional training in helping students who have experienced trauma. 

In previous years, the district has offered two sessions of professional development in a deep dive on trauma learning. This year, after high demand, that jumped to five. 

“Obviously the teachers are wanting that,” said Mary Jo Davis, coordinator of social work services for FCPS, which will also be starting online this fall. “They want that support and they want more tools to support what they see in the classroom — and knowing what they are anticipating maybe seeing more of in the classroom.” 

One challenge Davis sees with virtual support is helping students who are being abused at home. Although the risk of domestic violence has increased during quarantine, calls to the Child Protective Services hotline in Fairfax County decreased by 62% between March and the end of June, likely because children had limited contact with teachers, counselors and other trusted adults outside the home. 

“Obviously child abuse … that’s trauma,” said Davis. She said while supports for students may have been easier in a brick-and-mortar setting, she’s hopeful that increases in training and a boost in staff members with trained eyes will help in this “all-hands-on-deck” approach.

While FCPS did not get as much funding from the county and state for the 2020-21 school year as anticipated, the district received an additional $21.1 million in federal aid to support emergency relief efforts and added additional positions for social workers and counselors to help schools with the highest needs, according to May budget documents. Davis said the district also added more psychologists.

Fulton County Schools in Georgia, which will also start 100% virtually, has boosted its numbers as well after securing a grant from the county government for more than $940,000 to add mental health professionals from community partners in schools that did not yet have one on site. Middle and high school students also have 24/7 texting access to mental health professionals through the county.

The increased support was already in the works as part of a four-year plan, so while “it wasn’t necessarily COVID-related,” Matthews said, “I certainly feel a lot better having about that mental health access and resource built at every single school for any student who may need specialized assistance or treatment from those providers based on what they’re experiencing.”

Chelsea Montgomery, executive director of the Office of Student Supports for Fulton County Schools, said a key part of this work will be making sure it doesn’t stop when students, such as the one who lost his parents, eventually come back to school. 

“I think it’s important to be aware [of] the students’ pace of their grief and what they’re experiencing,” she said. “It’s easy to provide resources immediately, but we need to be aware and have those connections with him, those conversations with him as the year goes on. And, as he moves through the schooling with us, that this happened to him and there may be things that he needs at other points, not just right now.”

It’s about building lasting connections, she said — “not just in the moment.”

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