Why Helping Grieving Students Heal Matters So Much

School social worker Maria Garcia keeps a list on her computer. It’s not the kind of list anyone wants to have; it’s not a list of dream vacations or birthday gifts for her three kids or even groceries to pick up. It’s a list of all her students’ family members who have died from coronavirus: 35 and counting.

Garcia works at a public elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where she also grew up. Named for a park that sits in view of the Statue of Liberty, it’s a neighborhood Garcia describes as vibrant and resilient, “with many people seeking to better their lives.” It’s also a place that the serpent of COVID-19 struck with particular venom, attacking all its vulnerabilities: high poverty, crowded housing and low health insurance coverage.

“In the spring, our families didn’t know where to go,” Garcia recalled. With a large immigrant population and a tense political climate, she said people were afraid to reach out for services. The school fielded many calls “about people being very sick at home, not knowing what to do.”

Since then, Garcia and her colleagues have worked tirelessly to connect families to health care, set up food pantries, bridge technology gaps and keep education going for their 800 students. At the same time, they’re encountering the effects of widespread grief and trauma and all the ways it hinders learning.

It’s a situation playing out in schools across America. One that educators and mental health professionals say requires an intentional response as more schools reopen this spring. But with so much focus on “learning loss” and “returning to normal,” it’s unclear whether schools will be able to prioritize healing.

Last month the U.S. death toll from coronavirus surpassed half a million. That’s a difficult number to fathom, but in schools it can look like this: a list on a computer, dozens of grieving children, and staff stretching themselves thinner and thinner to support them.

Tidal wave of loss

Garcia said she’d been hearing about unidentifiable, drawn-out illnesses among her school’s families — 74% of whom are Hispanic — even before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Then, around mid-month, everything shifted. Fast. Schools shut down. Ambulance sirens wailed all day. Hospital morgues overflowed.

“It was like a tidal wave,” Garcia said.

At home with her own family, she typed the names of the deceased into a document, unsure what she would do with the list but compelled to keep a record. “There was no way to mourn during the spring,” she said. “But I was like, ‘How could it be OK to just let this go by?’”

By August, 4,200 children in New York State lost a parent to COVID, according to a report from the United Hospital Fund. Those children were disproportionately Black and Hispanic, and 57% lived in three boroughs of New York City, including Brooklyn.

Bereavement basket for kids filled with books, activities and comforting items. (Courtesy of Maria Garcia)

School closures made it hard to reach those children. Garcia partnered with a local bookstore to send home “bereavement baskets” with books, a stuffed animal, colored pencils and a handwritten note, but it wasn’t until the city’s schools reopened in October that she could assess how students were really doing. 

The conflict between physical distancing and the human need for connection is one of the great challenges of the pandemic, according to Dr. Pamela Cantor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Cantor is the founder of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit that translates developmental science into resources for educators.

Stress caused by loss of a loved one or even the loss of daily routines can trigger a hormone called cortisol, Cantor explained. When stress is chronic, cortisol can do long-term harm to bodily systems, including those associated with learning. But Cantor said that another hormone, oxytocin, can have a countering effect on the same systems.

And what triggers oxytocin?

Human relationships. In particular, relationships that are full of love, trust, attachment and safety. That’s why, Cantor said, educational settings that put connection at the center are the most successful.

Space for healing

In November, Garcia and two colleagues began offering trauma support sessions for groups of about four students. Each group runs for 12 weeks, mostly via Zoom to accommodate in-person and virtual students. They use a cognitive-behavioral model that enables children to share their stories, recognize connections between emotions and behavior, and eventually reduce the intensity of negative feelings.

In a normal year, Garcia might facilitate one trauma support group. This year, she has run three. A colleague has done a similar number. They’ve also led resilience workshops for entire classes. Officially, Garcia’s job is focused on special education services, not counseling. She said some of these activities have been implemented by a partner agency in the past, but the technical logistics and unpredictable schedule made that too hard this year. So she adds to her own workload, sometimes missing lunch to fill the gaps.

“I can’t allow the students to not have that kind of support,” she said. Without it, kids can become disengaged from school and overwhelmed by the seeming endlessness of the pandemic. “So we’re trying to stretch ourselves.”

As Garcia speaks, she tugs her fists apart, like she’s pulling taffy. Her words echo many classroom teachers, who have had to learn new instructional methods, adapt to constant uncertainty, and go to great lengths to reach missing kids this year. And when counselors are unavailable or over capacity, teachers can face the decreased motivation among students that Garcia worries about.

“One of the universals about grief is that there has to be a place and a space for the feelings associated with loss,” said Cantor, the Turnaround for Children founder.

Marcus Harden, a former school counselor and school leader, said teachers can also provide those spaces by being intentional. Some of the activities he recommends include healing circles, mindfulness, journaling, and authentic check-ins. Through his organization, ACE Academy, Harden helps educators implement such practices with a focus on young men of color.

But as more teachers get vaccinated against coronavirus and the Biden administration pushes for all schools to reopen, Harden said these efforts could be skipped in the rush to make up for lost instruction. “You can’t treat it like a throw away, which we tend to do with any relational thing.”

Healing takes time. In Sunset Park, businesses have reopened but foot traffic is lighter. A once-bustling diner no longer draws a line on weekends. Parents who used to clean affluent homes five days a week now work two or three.

Garcia’s list of the deceased isn’t growing as rapidly as 12 months ago, but it still weighs on her. She worries how the losses will affect students long-term. Recently, she spoke with a child who had been a diligent pupil before the pandemic. After a family member died from COVID-19, he started missing class and assignments. Garcia asked what was going on. He told her: “I just feel like I can’t find happiness in anything.”

That student is 9-years-old, Garcia said. And his response was familiar. “There’s countless stories like that.”

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