Nothing would come as a greater relief than to welcome back more than 2 million students to Los Angeles County schools in coming months. That’s where they belong.
But when schools reopen, they will not look the same as they did before the pandemic-required shelter-in-place. Our country was a different place three months ago. Today:
- Protests over racial injustice have rocked the nation.
- Interaction with friends, neighbors and family has changed as the pandemic has shuttered gathering places — schools, churches and businesses.
It’s essential that we, as educators and administrators, consider the experiences endured by our students since campuses closed in early March as preparations get underway for a new school year. Everyone will need to adopt a new mindset to protect the physical and mental health of our young people.
Schools must recognize that it’s vital to provide students with an environment that is friendly, supportive and caring. The trauma and stress of weeks in isolation must be expressed, acknowledged and addressed.
While some young people endured the Covid-19 lockdowns with relative ease — without exposure to the virus, with no significant financial worries or food shortages and plentiful resources for distance-learning — others have been under extraordinary stress.
Our programs must provide opportunities for them to speak out and be heard. The public murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and the institutional racism it demonstrated have profoundly affected our youth. Students of every ethnic and social background have seen the video images of the slaying.
Just as adults might do, young people may respond to these events with fear, rage and confusion. But for students of color, the trauma of those images, combined with a lifetime of racial bias, can be debilitating.
We must teach young people to stand up peacefully against injustice, racism and inequity. Like everyone else trying to make sense of these events, children are anxious to form perspectives. They will turn to us with questions. In some cases, they will demonstrate anger. As schools reopen, we must greet them with understanding of what they are going through and emotional support.
In the last three months, hundreds of thousands of young people in Los Angeles County have lost normal contact with their teachers and peers. They may feel disconnected. Many are exhausted by daily efforts to cope as they process traumatic events. Exhaustion may persist long after schools reopen as students struggle to make up for lost learning time. Accordingly, we must identify students who need help or have difficulty adjusting.
Before the pandemic, the Los Angeles County Office of Education was exploring new ways to alleviate the pressure on students in our 80 school districts who face challenges such as unstable housing, persistent hunger, domestic abuse and trauma.
During the shutdown, we have carried that work forward, but there are limits to our progress when schools are closed and face-to-face meetings unavailable. Even basic steps, such as identification and assessment of vulnerable students, has become difficult. The internet and a smartphone can’t equate to personal interaction.
As we prepare our schools for the upcoming academic year, mental health must be a primary planning focus. Safety will be our priority, and our efforts to provide a safe environment will be built upon protocols established by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health. These protocols will address multiple fronts, from social distancing to cleaning methods.
Americans are weathering waves of crises — or, as Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, puts it, “a pandemic upon a pandemic.” The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare America’s deepest, most profound socio-economic problems and severely tested scientific and medical expertise. None of these challenges to Americans’ health and welfare will magically disappear.
In the meantime, we can each do our part. Here is how educators and administrators, as well as parents, neighbors, relatives and friends, can address what children are going through:
Listen to your young people.
Ask questions of them.
Model healthy behavior, whether it’s to protest peacefully against police brutality or to encourage open and honest discussions about family problems or race relations.
Reach out to your school if you are worried about a child. They have resources to help.
Our responsibility as educators and administrators is to support every student as they transition back to the classroom in what has become the most traumatic time of their young lives.
Debra Duardo is the superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
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