As the pandemic continues to rage across the country, we need to bring teachers and students back together in a way that is safe and sustainable for traumatized children.
Since the pandemic began, more than 43,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent to COVID-19.
Many of these children will be navigating attending school in person for the first time in over a year, paired with the grief and pain of losing a parent to a virus that is still killing people each day.
My five daughters are among them. My husband, their father, Theodis, contracted COVID-19 in December and was quarantining when he started having trouble breathing. I called an ambulance, but it was too late — he was dead within a few hours.
As my daughters re-enter the classroom for the first time since their dad’s death, I know they’ll need increased support from me, their peers and most importantly from the teachers and school counselors who will be encountering their grief first-hand.
We need to bring teachers and students back together in a way that is safe and sustainable for traumatized children.
Schools need to physically, mentally and emotionally support and protect our children.
We need our school systems to ensure safer classrooms, implement stronger mental health support systems and create rapid response plans to prepare for rising COVID-19 cases.
For children who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, feeling safe and secure at school is paramount.
That’s why parents like me are terrified to know that, in just a single week last month, children accounted for more than 15% of all new cases in the United States. Because they’re still too young to be vaccinated, children under 12-years-old are the most vulnerable.
While only 2% of COVID-19 infections in children have resulted in hospitalizations— no parent wants their child to be the exception.
It is unconscionable that, as many children have struggled for breath in the hospital this summer, local governments have taken steps that undermine their safety by preventing mask mandates and other crucial safeguards against rising infections.
Preventative measures must be taken inside the classrooms so that our grieving children can feel their safest in the place where they spend most of their time. This includes masking, testing and vaccination requirements where possible and proper ventilation.
These policies not only protect my daughters’ safety, but mine as well. Since their father’s death, my children have voiced their fears about being alone if something happened to me.
I feel secure knowing that I’m vaccinated, but a lack of safety measures at school could increase my chances of a breakthrough infection.
Children need to feel safe in order to perform well in a school setting
As we send our children to school this fall, we need to be able to trust that every precaution is being taken to keep them – and our whole family – safe and protected from further trauma.
While their physical health is my first priority, my daughters can only learn if their mental health is also safeguarded.
For each of my children, grief looks incredibly different – especially given their various ages. All of my girls now suffer from anxiety, and my seven-year-old has to be rocked to sleep every night.
I do what I can at home, but I need the support of mental health professionals in their schools to help navigate the complexities of their new normal.
Lack of transportation, work constraints and financial pressures prevent many parents like myself from enrolling their kids in therapy, but it doesn’t mean they can’t get the help they need.
By implementing check-ins with school psychologists and informing parents of in-person and text therapy options, educators can make a real difference for kids who are already experiencing hardship.
Even if they haven’t lost a parent, chances are, at least one child in every classroom has been directly affected by COVID-19 in some capacity.
It’s not just students who are coping with a new reality – we know that our educators are experiencing loss and trauma as well.
How COVID-19 has impacted our educators and what we can do to support them
To account for these new challenges, school leaders should incorporate training and support for COVID-19 survivors into teacher and administrative trainings at the start of the school year. These trainings can adapt as the school year progresses.
Our educators deserve the proper tools to help their students, and themselves, put mental health first so learning can truly take place.
The 2019-20 school year was a struggle for everyone, but even though Covid is far from over, we have a chance to make it better this time around. That’s why Covid survivors across the country are calling on their local education departments to support children and educators dealing with Covid loss.
It’s why we need to ensure that rapid response plans are in place to account for the evolving health situation.
While it’s not what anyone wanted, the rise of the Delta varian sparks a risk that we might be forced to return to fully virtual learning.
Regardless, hybrid learning should still be an option for students, especially for the benefit of those suffering from the trauma of losing a parent or recovering from long-haul COVID-19.
We’ve asked a lot from our educators in the past year, especially given the challenges of teaching from home and the complicated logistics of hybrid learning.
Some may feel that we are asking too much of them. But if we put the proper supports in place for both students and teachers coping with loss and trauma from COVID-19, this school year has the opportunity to help with healing and tremendous growth to the entire community.
Approaching the new academic year with an eye toward safety, flexibility and awareness can make all the difference in setting our children up for success.
Just as the old saying goes, “it takes a village,” and when it comes to children still suffering from COVID-19 related trauma that couldn’t be more true. I understand this now more than ever, with the loss of my husband still being very fresh in our household.
Our doctors and scientists are working to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Parents are doing their part by making sure their children come to school with masks and are being safe at home.
School boards and education departments must take the time to identify and implement classroom safety measures, mental health supports and plans to deal with the unexpected nature of the pandemic.
The well-being of our children depends on it.
Vickie Quarles is a Tennessee-based member of Covid Survivors for Change and Young Widows and Widowers of COVID-19.
Published in The Tennesean