Schools Must Prepare Now to Address Student and Teacher Trauma

My students and I are entering our tenth week of remote learning, all of us isolated from one another and from our shared classroom space. I know that each student has adapted and coped in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. In one concerning case, interactions with friends and teachers have dwindled to almost nothing.

In some households, a parent is a first responder or essential worker. Elsewhere, students whose parents are working from home are able to guide, encourage, and help them complete each assignment. In the same class, I have other students who stay up late into the night playing video games and surfing the web.

Just as we did when we were in school, each weekday morning at 9:00 a.m., the 17 students of my advisory come together in a new, virtual space where we all start our day. I’ve received emails from two parents (whose children attend regularly) thanking me for holding my morning Zoom meetings and giving some modicum of predictability and routine to their child’s day.

I hold my morning meetings as much for myself as I do for the students. Knowing I will have about 15 students looking to me as a starting point for their work-from-home time, and as some echo of our formerly structured school day, helps me get in the right mindset to start my work. 

Like many of my colleagues, I am struggling to find a balance between the positive tone I set for my students and the internal roiling anxiety that I fight to keep under control. If my mind wanders even for a bit, I can so easily be consumed with worry for my parents’ health, my husband’s small business, or just a general overwhelming sense of dread and angst. My worst fear, though, seems to surface every time I open my laptop; I’m not as good a teacher as I want to be.

We Weren’t Prepared to Support Student and Staff Mental Health

We are all living through a slow-motion trauma. It is clear that this crisis will have massive consequences for education and mental health. The extent to which students, teachers and administrators can cope with anxiety and loss will be a primary challenge for whenever schools reopen. While we have come a long way in understanding the effects of trauma on a student’s ability to learn, in my lifetime or even in the past century, there has never been a situation quite like this, where trauma is systemic, sustained and societal.

Even before the term coronavirus became part of our daily vocabulary, our resources for supporting student mental health have long been vastly overstretched. In my own school system, there is a middle school counselor-to-student ratio of close to 1:200, which is lower than the nationally-recommended ratio of 1:250, but still too large. Realistically, a counselor would manage a caseload closer to 100 students, and there would be more counselors to collaborate and specialize in specific mental health areas of concern. 

Mental health challenges like anxiety, depression and behavioral dysregulation have all been growing faster than we can manage. What is certain is that a coming tsunami of trauma will test our schools as never before. When we return to some sense of normalcy, trauma-informed instruction should be the modus operandi of all classrooms in our country. 

Alongside our students, we teachers are also experiencing the effects of trauma. Before this health emergency, teacher burnout, stress and turnover were already on the increase. These problems were even more pronounced among teachers of color and teachers in poorer urban and rural districts. Looking ahead to the end of remote learning, many teachers will need deep and lasting mental health support.

We Must Start the Conversation About Next School Year and Trauma Now

Next school year will likely be the toughest in a generation, and we need to start the conversation now about how we will address its challenges. Schools must ready themselves to offer new strategies for academic remediation, to instill new routines, and to identify the most serious mental health and emotional concerns among their students.  

Schools will need to staff enough counselors so caseloads are manageable and foster personal connections. Something like a tiered approach would make sense—more intensive needs would receive a much smaller ratio, while less intensive but still significant needs could have more students assigned to a given counselor. Teachers will have to be trained and supported to put the social and emotional wellbeing of students first—even before academics. 

For teachers, the plan must include support groups, mentor programs and targeted professional development. My district, like many others, offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides free and confidential counseling and crisis intervention for all qualified staff. Many educators aren’t aware that this benefit exists and others don’t take advantage of it. Districts should beef up their EAPs now in preparation for increased numbers of teachers who want or need short term counseling or help in finding a long term mental health provider.

Even now, as most school districts have officially canceled classes through the summer of 2020, students and teachers need support, and they will need lots more to help them maintain their mental wellbeing. Superintendents and principals should be examining virtual ways for teachers to access mental health professionals, create supportive networks and process their anxiety in real-time. Schools should expect to see students who will need trauma-informed instruction, and should prepare for the consequences of secondary traumatic stress.

All of these concerns, worries and expectations are on my mind each morning, just before 9:00 a.m. when I adjust my laptop, activate the camera and prepare to ‘

“go live.” As each of my students appears on my screen, I imagine the struggles, hopes, fears, challenges and stories happening on the other side—each unique and important. At least we are all doing something to alleviate this trauma right now—we are sharing the experience with one another. There is so much work yet to come—but for these moments, we are able to feel a small sense of normalcy. 

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