Virginia School Seeks ‘To Keep Routine’ For Children With Parents in the Military

By Ellen Flax — January 30, 1991 4 min read

York County, Va--For many children in this southern Virginia county, the Persian Gulf war strikes too close to home.

About 40 percent of the 9,300 children who attend school here have at least one parent who is affiliated with one of the three military installations in the area. And 10 percent of the children have a parent who has been sent to the Persian Gulf region.

As a result, local educators have been on an unfamiliar type of alert since war broke out on Jan. 16: to be on guard to soothe and alleviate students’ fears.

“For the kids’ sake, we need to keep things as routine and normal as possible,” said Audrey Gresham, a guidance counselor at Dare Elementary School. “Their support is here at school.”

Like their counterparts in other districts serving a large number of military dependents, York County educators have been offering special services to these vulnerable students since last summer, when troops began going overseas. And like other heavily affected school systems, York County had begun to brace itself for the worst if war broke out. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1991.)

Due to this planning, educators here say that the first days of battle had little effect on the school routine.

“The only thing that wasn’t normal was the talking about the war,” said Leslie Kaplan, the district’s director of guidance, the morning after the war began. “I think the only casualty was homework.”

Although the children’s outward routine remained normal, educators acknowledged that for some, the war unleashed intense worries about their parents’ safety.

It was fortunate for these children, they said, that the first news of the war came at night, when they were more likely to be at home with their families. But educators said it was still important to be on the lookout for children who continued to be visibly upset at school.

Ms. Gresham, for example, said support groups for the children of deployed servicemen, which have been meeting since the beginning of the school year, had additional sessions the day after the war began.

At one such session with three 2nd- and 3rd-grade students, the children drew pictures of military planes and boats. With different colored crayons, they also filled in a circle that was divided into several pie-shaped sections, each corresponding with a different emotion, such as anger or sadness.

“It’s O.K. to be worried,” Ms. Gresham told them. “It’s O.K. to be sad.”

Erin, a 6th-grade student in another support group, said she feels “a little bit proud, scared, and worried” when she thinks about her father, an Air Force pilot. Group sessions at the school, she said quietly, “help me feel better, that it’s not just me.”

Meanwhile, at nearby Coventry Elementary School, the school’s guidance counselor, Linda Wolf, said she spent part of the first day of the war “checking in” with all the students whose parents had been deployed.

About 70 percent of the children at the school have parents in the military, most of whom are affiliated with Langley Air Force Base down the road. About 10 percent of the children have parents overseas. Many live in military housing, and have had difficulty coping with new security procedures, Ms. Wolf said.

Students in the counselor’s support groups said that they and their families have made many changes at home as a result of the deployment.

Steven and Kelley, a lively set of twins in the 4th grade, said they have taken on additional chores since their father left last summer. She has to vacuum, and he has to clean the bathroom, they said almost in unison. They also had to give up their dog and make other adjustments to ease the family’s tight budget.

In the support groups, said Steven, “we talk about how much we miss our dad and how stupid it is to go to war over oil.”

“If I had a wish,” he added, “I would wish for my dad to come home and for world peace.”

Danielle, a 6th-grade student, said friends and adults do not always understand her concerns. “I don’t want anyone to be sorry for me,” she said. “My dad says that when he gets back, we’ll do a lot of fun things.”

Teachers at the two elementary schools said they were trying to be sensitive to their students’ emotional needs during this difficult time.

Kathy Young, a 6th-grade social-studies teacher at Dare, said she gave an open-book test, instead of a regular exam, the day after the war began. Too many children, she said, had stayed up late watching television the night before.

“I think we have all the support systems in place and ready to go,” she said.

Elizabeth Oglesby, a 3rd-grade teacher at Coventry, said she faces the additional challenge of teaching her students while trying to avoid worrying about her husband, a military chaplain who is serving in the Gulf region.

“I tell them, ‘You can help me get my mind off of him and help to keep me going,”’ she said. “I’m more involved emotionally myself, but maybe it will help me deal with them.”

Outside of school, the military offers support to these children and their families. At nearby Fort Eustis, for example, teenagers and their parents can attend walk-in group-counseling sessions.

Vern Hunter, the clinical director of the Army base’s counseling center, said the spouses of members of military units sent overseas form ''a chain of concern” to provide support and information to one another. The base also organizes social activities for military children, he said.

“The idea is to encourage these folks to stay busy, not to stay at home and be isolated,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Virginia School Seeks ‘To Keep Routine’ For Children With Parents in the Military