Special Report
Teaching Profession Reported Essay

Students Aren’t the Only Ones Grieving

Teachers, too, have faced incalculable losses
By Ileana Najarro — September 14, 2021 4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.

Students across the country have experienced tremendous loss in the last year and a half, from the disruption of traditions to interruptions in learning. As important as it may be to focus on restoring some of what the pandemic stole from young people, let’s not forget that schools must also address the one loss that can never fully be restored: the loss of life.

Thousands of students in K-12 are returning to school this fall, mourning the death of someone they knew. By one estimate, about 40,000 kids lost a parent to COVID-19 between February 2020 and February 2021 alone. Schools need to ensure these students’ mental health needs are met, particularly as they pertain to grief, and teachers are key.

My mother died during my sophomore year of high school. I know firsthand how frank conversations about grief with trusted school staff and teachers can help, both in terms of the return to school, and in the long run.

But who can teachers and others on staff turn to when they, too, are grieving? Teachers are coming into this school year exhausted, anxious, and overwhelmed. Grief on top of all that can be too much, and leaders need to ensure staff get access to the support they need.

In a July survey by the EdWeek Research Center of 886 K-12 district leaders, school leaders, and teachers, 31 percent of principals and district leaders said they had lost a loved one since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 12 percent said it was due to COVID-19.

Laurie Croswhite, a 1st grade teacher and head swim coach in the Chandler Unified school district in Arizona, lost her husband, Kerry, the district’s former head swim coach, to the virus last July. 

Her administrators and colleagues were a phone call or text away. If she felt she needed a moment of emotion away from her virtual class, they could take over until she was ready. She felt fortunate to have all that.

But she didn’t discuss the experience of loss with her students. 

“I was unsure about the best way to say it,” she said. “I didn’t want them to then be fearful, thinking people in their life will suddenly die.”

That concern, of not knowing what to say while you struggle emotionally, is something Benjamin Fernandez, a school psychologist in Loudoun County public schools in Virginia, has heard often from teachers.

Fernandez, who is also a member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, said helping staff cope with grief will, in turn, benefit students who are looking to talk to someone about their own feelings.

How do districts and schools plan to relieve teachers’ stress and support their personal grieving this school year?

So how do districts and schools plan to relieve teachers’ stress and support their personal grieving this school year? Forty-two percent of surveyed principals and district leaders said they would offer mental health or counseling services; 55 percent said supervisors would be checking in periodically to make sure employees are OK and to see whether they needed anything.

Knowing how taxing and upsetting the pandemic has been and that teachers have lost loved ones, El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, Calif., developed an independent contract with a local licensed therapist this summer. Any staff member can contact her for therapy, counseling, or for help in finding their own therapist for ongoing services through their insurance.

The mental health liaison for the district, Jeff Middleton, said that teachers don’t have to be grief counselors. Instead, they can simultaneously build trusting relationships with students to find out what’s going on and work with support staff to ensure students’ mental health needs are being met.

But part of building that relationship means being open to discussing the painful feelings around loss, which can be uncomfortable to broach.

“We’re uncomfortable with our own stuff as it relates to grief, and we’re not in touch with ourselves,” said Amy Stewart, a licensed clinical social worker in Texas who works with Covid Survivors for Change, a national network and advocacy group for people affected by the virus.

A greater openness to discussing grief in its many forms, a greater emphasis on support for grieving staff, and, ultimately, a greater willingness to engage in mental health concerns can be positive developments that emerge from the pandemic.

“Grief is still going to be something that we’re going to see regularly in our schools, whether it’s students, whether it’s staff, whether it’s families,” Fernandez said.

Back when I was in high school, it felt good to know that I could talk about how much I missed my mom with trusted adults who wanted to hear me out. When they shared their own grief stories, it helped me understand the varied ways grief can manifest and the validity of my own experiences. I didn’t always want to talk about it. Sometimes it was too hard.

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2021 edition of Education Week as Students Aren’t the Only Ones Grieving

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Assessment Webinar
The State of Assessment in K-12 Education
What is the impact of assessment on K-12 education? What does that mean for administrators, teachers and most importantly—students?
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Centering the Whole Child in School Improvement Planning and Redesign
Learn how leading with equity and empathy yield improved sense of belonging, attendance, and promotion rate to 10th grade.

Content provided by Panorama
Teaching Profession Webinar Examining the Evidence: Supports to Promote Teacher Well-Being
Rates of work dissatisfaction are on the rise among teachers. Grappling with an increased workload due to the pandemic and additional stressors have exacerbated feelings of burnout and demoralization. Given these challenges, what can the

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Meet the 4 Finalists for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year
The four finalists hail from Colorado, Hawaii, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and were recognized for their dedication to student learning.
5 min read
National Teacher of The Year nominees
From left to right: Whitney Aragaki, Autumn Rivera, Kurt Russell, and Joseph Welch
Teaching Profession What Happens When Teachers Are Out of Sick Days?
We asked EdWeek's social media followers to share their school policies on COVID-related sick leave. Here’s how they responded. 
Marina Whiteleather
2 min read
Female at desk, suffering from flu symptoms like fever, headache and sore throat at her workplace
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Explainer: Why Are Chicago Schools, Teachers' Union Fighting?
The issue that caused the most chaos in the roughly 350,000-student district was when and how to revert to remote learning.
3 min read
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and supporters stage a car caravan protest outside City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, 2022. Chicago school leaders canceled classes in the nation’s third-largest school district for the second straight day after failing to reach an agreement with the teachers union over remote learning and other COVID-19 safety protocols. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Teaching Profession Some Teachers Are Running Out of Sick Days, and Administrators Are Hesitant to Help
With a shortage of substitutes and pressure to stay open, administrators are reluctant to extend paid time off for teachers with COVID.
13 min read
Professional male social distancing or self quarantining inside a coronavirus pathogen.
iStock/Getty Images Plus