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“We’re going to have to do a lot in every school to support kids who have honestly been traumatized,” Mayor Bill de Blasio has said.

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Ideas to power next school year in NYC: How to confront trauma and foster healing

When schools reopen, many students will face mental health challenges. Here’s what might help.

Trauma: the word will hang over school communities when teachers and students return next school year, whether to campus, to remote classrooms, or to some hybrid of the two. 

The coronavirus pandemic has torn apart the very fabric of the city, closing school buildings, ravaging neighborhoods — disproportionately low-income ones — and forcing some 1.1 million New York City students to spend most of their days indoors, attempting to learn from home. With New York state’s coronavirus death toll at about 25,000, some students will return to school having experienced the illness or death of someone close to them. Recent weeks have added another layer of trauma, following the police killing of George Floyd, and the resulting protests, where law enforcement have sometimes used violence to disrupt demonstrators. 

“We understand that September is going to be a challenge in terms of mental health for our kids that’s absolutely unprecedented,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in April, “and we’re going to have to do a lot in every school to support kids who have honestly been traumatized.” 

Since then, de Blasio convened a 45-member task force to consider next steps. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” alongside a 19-member task force that doesn’t include any current New York City education department officials. (The Gates Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Trauma-informed approaches will be a major focus of restart plans, according to a letter Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent to principals this week. 

Chalkbeat spoke with educators, students, and other experts about how schools can help their communities begin to process what they’ve lost and begin to heal. Recurring themes include the need to help teachers understand trauma and the importance of prioritizing student well-being over academic benchmarks.

This is part of an ongoing series featuring the voices of educators, parents, students, and other experts to help understand what ideas should power the 2020-21 school year.

The responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Develop trauma-informed curriculum and care

Lesley Koplow/Courtesy photo

Lesley Koplow — Founding Director, Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice, Bank Street College

Whenever schools open, it will be crucial for staff to acknowledge the traumatic context that we have been living through, and the losses that children have suffered. There has been a continuum of loss in the lives of New York City’s schoolchildren. That includes loss of daily routine, peer group, participation in sports, dance and music, classroom life, parental job loss, food sources, feeling of well-being, contact with neighbors and friends, contact with their own family members in quarantine, as well as loss of neighbors and family members who succumbed to COVID-19. In addition, the death of George Floyd and its aftermath will weigh heavily, especially on Black and brown children when they come back to school. 

Thousands of our children will re-enter school carrying loss and trauma “in their backpacks” and will not be able to fully participate unless these very real experiences are addressed. Trauma-informed routines, interactions, and curriculum will be an essential practice in support of educational equity as well as protecting children’s emotional health.

Consider the example of teacher absence, an occasional occurrence in the best of times, but considerably more likely in the fall. Children who have suffered recent traumatic losses may be hyper-alert to the absence of a trusted adult. The absence may evoke overwhelming fear, sadness, and anger connected to the prior loss. Schools committed to responding to children with trauma-informed knowledge and empathy can help provide reassurance and clarity around teacher absences, and help children differentiate between past and present. Trauma-informed schools resist re-traumatizing children by shaming them or having “zero tolerance” for moments of regressed behavior.  

Protective changes in the school environment can be presented within the context of teachers and school leaders working hard to keep children and staff safe from the virus. Booklets and videos can be made to help children understand the changes. However, it will be crucial to make sure that the recommended shifts are realistic for all of the age groups for which they are intended. Young children will still need contact with their teachers and crave contact with their peers. Children readily pick up on anxiety levels in the adults around them, and will know if those adults are feeling afraid to be present with them in the classroom.

Redefine what it means to ‘fall behind’

A man in a fedora smiles.

Christopher Emdin/Courtesy Photo

Christopher Emdin — Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology, Teachers College, and Founder, #HipHopEd

In any situation where a sense of normalcy has been disrupted, it is the responsibility of the school and the educators to adjust the curricular expectations to reflect for young people’s needs. Pursuing knowledge at the expense of teaching about dealing with loss, self-care, creating a sense of balance, and finding joy in the midst of challenge is, at best, irresponsible.

Traditionally, schools have defined “falling behind” only in terms of academics. But students can also fall behind emotionally. Schools and educators must work even harder to ensure  young people and their families have the resources to overcome their challenges. They must use mail, phone and social media, and pre-recorded video content. They must use any means necessary. 

In the midst of disaster, if children and teens find themselves flailing, stories of hope are healing for those telling them and also for those hearing them. Have students create video blogs about their moments of joy and success and share them with each other. Celebrate teachers, and share stories of their efforts that have paid off. For every story about dysfunction, ensure that you tell two about victories and progress. 

And as the nation engages in protest about the value of Black lives, educators must work to elevate Black voices, stories, and experiences across subject areas. The chief form of protest for educators is their teaching. Through it, they can create space for students to share their feelings and their voices, and offer a path towards healing and transformation.

School needs to feel like a safe place. That means no police.

Eliza Seki/Courtesy Photo

Eliza Seki — eighth-grader, M.S. 839, Kensington, Brooklyn

I really hope that school starts in-person in the fall. For students like myself who will be entering a new school next year — I will be starting high school — the transition back to school will be even harder if we are still learning remotely.

Because of what we’ve been through — with COVID-19 and the aftermath of recent killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd, I feel like school administrators and teachers will need to make a lot of room for students to process it all. Schools will need to ease the academic pressure on students and provide emotional support for those who need it. They will also need to be very clear about what is expected of students because this past semester has been very confusing for a lot of us.

Coming back to school after such a long time, it will be especially important that school feels like a safe place. That’s why we need two basic things this fall: 1) smaller class sizes so we are able to socially distance and 2) getting the police presence out of our schools. 

It is unacceptable for students to feel criminalized by metal detectors and police in their schools, especially when police presence will disproportionately impact Black and Latinx students. Getting the NYPD out of schools has needed to happen for years, and after Floyd’s killing, it has become all the more urgent for the emotional and physical well-being of students.

Reduce class size and alleviate academic pressures

Dorothy Siegel/Courtesy photo

Dorothy Siegel — Co-founder of the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Nest program, a collaboration between NYU Steinhardt and the NYC education department

When school buildings finally reopen, our students’ academic skills and knowledge will be very uneven. Their social-emotional needs will be sky high. Many have experienced trauma. All have had their lives upended. Students who needed help learning English will still need help, and students with disabilities will still struggle — even more so.

We must not try to go back to “normal.” Normal no longer exists and won’t work for many students anyway. NYC must make school a place where the individual needs of all students are understood and met.

In the youngest grades, I would limit classes to 18 students, each with a general education teacher and a special education teacher who would have the time and space to identify the academic needs of every student. A social worker or guidance counselor would be assigned to three classes, conducting small-group discussions about the traumatic things our kids have experienced, and working 1:1 with the many children who need it.

If children go into school only two or three days a week to allow for smaller classes and less crowding, the homework that’s assigned should not cover new material, but should reinforce what they learned at school. Parents should not be asked to teach anything.

In the beginning, forget about meeting academic benchmarks and remove as much academic stress as possible from the classroom. Teachers should incorporate as many fun activities as possible — lots of hands-on science, art, music, and movement — along with core academic work. The primary task of the first couple of months is to help our children feel more secure, confident, resilient, and happy. Only then can they begin catching up.

Don’t forget the plight of the city’s undocumented students

Vanessa Luna/Courtesy Photo

Vanessa Luna — Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer, ImmSchools

During this critical moment, schools must prioritize the social-emotional needs of students, given that many of them are grappling with severe uncertainty, anxiety, and grief. The pandemic has exacerbated all of the systemic inequities’ students were experiencing across New York City and the movement for Black Lives has highlighted the deep systemic racism that impacts New York City students and families in and beyond our schools. 

Before any academic push happens, the trauma of this moment must be acknowledged, and educators’ relationships with students and families must be prioritized.

When deciding how to reopen, schools must have a concrete plan with key goals for supporting students’ emotional health. Plans may include ensuring social workers are present at schools and providing parents with mental health resources. Educators need continuous trauma-informed training, not only on pedagogy and research but also on how to implement specific practices. And we need to create spaces for both students and families to dialogue and process what has occurred. Schools should host virtual and in-person events so we can ask our school communities what they need and be responsive to those needs; student-led gatherings are also key.

And we should not forget our undocumented students and families, and the challenges they have safely accessing the supports they need. Many of them are juggling multiple responsibilities in a time of uncertainty, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs DACA, and facing continued threats of being deported or having their family members deported. In addition, as educators we must uplift and understand the unique experiences and challenges that Black undocumented students and families face amid the double bind of systemic racism and xenophobia. 

Give students space to process the previous school year

Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right... But I don’t know if we can find in chorus./Photo by Christina Veiga

Jennifer Spalding and Lauren Scott — Principal and Assistant Principal, Sunset Park Prep middle school, Brooklyn

Sunset Park Prep begins each school year with Community Days, a series of activities and celebrations to welcome students and reconnect us all to the school community. The goals of these activities: alleviate first-day worries, foster connections to classmates, and create shared community norms to guide our year. 

As we look ahead to the fall, the goals are the same, but the annual Community Day event will look a little different. In response to our interrupted year, our returning students will have the chance to spend time with their previous year’s teachers and classmates and reflect on their experiences, and all students will close out the year that was left abruptly.

For the past four years, we have self-funded an additional counselor position. We intend to keep this position in the new academic year, given the extensive loss our school community has experienced due to COVID-19, which disproportionately affected Black and brown communities, and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. And as we continue to bear witness to gross inequity and injustice, we will recommit ourselves to be anti-racist educators.