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