Phillip Perry was a principal who lived and breathed his school. He attended every ballgame and pep rally at G.W. Carver Middle School. And when his colleague, Karen Hassell, would visit his building, she radioed for Perry because he was never in his office—preferring to be in the classrooms and hallways with students.
Perry died March 31 of COVID-19 at age 49. His decline was swift, catching students and teachers at the Waco, Texas, school off guard.
“People were shocked and devastated,” said Hassell, who works for Transformation Waco, a school improvement initiative at Carver. “For students, for many of them, this was probably the first person they knew to pass away.”
While Perry was new to the job at Carver, having started at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, he had deep roots in the community. He grew up in Waco and worked previously as an assistant principal in the district.
Now Carver, like dozens of other schools across the country, is grappling with how to help students not only say goodbye to beloved educators, but also conceptualize the loss.
“We are worried about how [students] will react when they return to a school building and they have a new principal,” said Hassell. “They left for spring break and they never got to see Mr. Perry again.”
As fatalities from the coronavirus pandemic rise, so, too, does the likelihood that schools will have to confront a death of a staff member, parent, or even a student from COVID-19. Principals, teachers, and school mental health support staff face unique challenges in helping students navigate their grief and fears in the era of stay-at-home orders and social distancing.
Even for a veteran school psychologist like Benjamin Fernandez, who works for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, and helped his district respond to the September 11th terrorist attacks, the pandemic presents new stressors he is trying to figure out how to respond to. Among them: simply not having the answers.
“My daughter asked me, what did you do with your first pandemic?” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘kiddo, this is my first pandemic.’ ”
Novel Virus, Novel Challenges
One of the biggest challenges for educators is how to memorialize someone who has died when social distancing rules prevent students from gathering.
Funerals and other rituals that bring people together to remember someone are far more than a formality, they’re an important part of the grief process and fulfill a deeply human need.
“Now that the funerals are only for immediate family and they can’t come together, it has made it incredibly difficult for people in terms of their grieving response,” said Christina Connolly, the director of psychological services at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. “Then you have the fear of someone [else] dying on top of it.”
Schools need to have a plan in place for honoring a staff member or student who dies, she said. Otherwise, students may take it upon themselves to organize their own gathering without taking proper precautions. Connolly’s district learned this first-hand.
Shortly after the pandemic closed schools in Montgomery County, a student died from an unrelated incident, and dozens of grieving friends gathered in a park, flaunting social distancing guidelines and the governor’s orders banning large crowds. Police had to break up the gathering.
Although not the same, virtual memorials can help fill that need to grieve communally, said Connolly. Students can make videos honoring a staff member’s life.
This can be a stand-in until students and staff can gather again, said David Schonfeld, the director for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
Schonfeld, a leading national expert on school crisis management, said he is getting calls from school leaders across the country asking how they should plan to memorialize a deceased staff member.
“You don’t have to get together and hold up candles,” said Schonfeld. “You have to just figure out how to create community. You can do that remotely. More formal commemoration can wait. Those [ceremonies] are to make sure you aren’t forgetting about the person who dies—you won’t forget. So focus first on the acute grief.”
Educators also need to be prepared for the fact that school closures may delay students’ ability to fully process a death in their school community.
Denial is a normal reaction to death, said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a professor of school psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and a specialist on crisis response and intervention. Because students haven’t been in school—or at least in their school buildings—they may not fully comprehend the loss of a friend or teacher until they’re back in their physical classes and that person is not there.
Educators also need to be on the lookout for when a healthy grief response veers into something unhealthy, said Crepeau-Hobson. But that is much more difficult for teachers and support staff who are only interacting with students through video conferencing, phone calls, or emails.
“That’s the crux of the issue—it’s tricky enough when we’ve got them around us physically,” Crepeau-Hobson said. “The way we go about it in the school setting is close monitoring and checking in with the individual but also primary caregivers, teachers, and other people who know the kiddo. How do we do that virtually? Frequent contacts with the family, with the individual. And if you’ve got a whole classroom of kids who are impacted because they lost a teacher, it does mean regular check-ins with those kids and their families.”
During those check-ins, school personnel need to be on the lookout for students who “seem kind of stuck and not starting to move forward and learning to live with the loss” said Crepeau-Hobson. They should pay particular attention to students who already struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or a previous loss. While keeping in mind that the vast majority of students are going to be fine in the long run, the point to be concerned, Crepeau-Hobson said, is when the grief is long, pervasive, and extreme to where it’s interfering with a student’s day-to-day functioning or meeting developmental milestones.
“It’s not a clear black-and-white line in part because there’s no set grieving period for people,” she said. “It’s really kind of a judgment call. We do expect people to be sad and to have difficulty paying attention. We do expect to see academic performance drop off.”
But schools must brace for other suffering unique to a pandemic: that students, at least in some hard-hit areas, will be coping with several deaths within their families or school communities.
“Those [deaths] become more than additive, they almost multiply each other,” said Schonfeld. “In some communities, children are experiencing multiple losses related to the pandemic and that can be particularly challenging and overwhelm children because they haven’t processed or coped with one loss, and then there is another loss,” he said. In addition: “Children are not just grieving death, but the loss of stability, safety, and graduation … children grieve those other losses as well.”
This can be very difficult for teachers, who often don’t know what to say to grieving students because of a lack of training on the issue, said Schonfeld. A recent Education Week Research Center survey found that only 29 percent of educators said that teachers in their district have received training on how to talk to students about the death of a loved one.
‘We Don’t Need to Reinvent the Wheel’
While the coronavirus pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis, school leaders are not in entirely uncharted waters, say experts.
Schonfeld reminds principals and superintendents seeking his advice that many of them have had to deal with a student or staff death happening over the summer while students were out of school. And there’s lessons they can draw from that.
For example, it’s important to tell students what happened quickly before rumors and misinformation about the death spread, said Schonfeld.
“We don’t need to recreate the wheel here,” said Fernandez, the psychologist in Virginia. “What can we do to our current processes so we can use them remotely?”
A reading specialist for his district, named Susan Rokus, died from COVID-19 in late March. She was 73 years old and the first coronavirus-related death in the area, according to local media.
School and district-based mental health providers don’t have the same access to students since school buildings closed in mid-March, so the district has taken the approach of “empowering the caregivers,” said Fernandez, by supplying them with informational documents on how children and adolescents grieve.
“The caregiver training was a very specific training that we had developed and sent out to families basically helping them understand the facts,” he said. “Helping them know what those common reactions are, across all ages, as well as how to respond. What kind of simple things that families can do to help their child through this challenging time and then when to get help.”
That approach is especially helpful as the academic year comes to a close, said Jill Cook, the assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. Schools should prepare parents with tools to help their children over the summer as they become even more disconnected from schools, which are a major source of mental health support for children in many communities.
“One of the things schools can do as they begin to wind down here is provide information and resources to families and students about coping strategies, about community resources, if something happens and they feel like they need more help,” she said.
Routine is an important source of comfort for children in riding out the emotional turmoil that comes with the death of a loved one, and the summer break threatens to upend routines even further, she said.
In response to Principal Perry’s death in Waco, the school offered grief counseling to students and teachers as it normally would, just online instead of in-person. School leadership is working with students to plan some kind of memorial for Perry.
In the meantime, the school, whose mascot is a panther, has been using the tagline “paws up for Perry” as it tries to keep students motivated in their remote learning. It’s giving students decals with the tagline printed across a heart with a pawprint.
“We have tried to keep his spirit alive,” said Hassell. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that he was a vibrant member of the school community and that he was taken from us too soon. We want to honor what could have been—I think he would have done great things at Carver.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2020 edition of Education Week as Helping Students Grieve From a Distance