In the wake of COVID-19, several local school districts are adopting or strengthening social-emotional curriculum for the upcoming school year, hoping to increase students' resilience.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
The first grader did not understand. She had been kept home from Gomez Heritage Elementary, and switched to the school’s remote learning option, after her mother tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year.
That made perfect sense for the health and safety of her classmates and teachers. And having her mom isolate in another room of the house, away from her, made sense for the safety of the first grader herself.
But it didn’t make sense to the first grader, who stared into the iPad screen, her eyes brimming with tears, and fired a series of heartfelt questions at her teacher.
Why can’t I come to the building anymore? Why do I have to be on the iPad? Why can’t I be with my mom? I want my mom!
“That was a heartbreaking situation to watch her go through,” says the student’s teacher, Octavia Butler. “We work with a population that already deals with a lot of trauma. COVID has compounded it.”
It has been a year since schools first closed their doors as a deadly virus circled the globe. Now, with the vast majority of students back in classrooms full time—and with vaccination signaling that the worst of COVID may finally be behind us—it’s time, experts and educators say, to begin assessing a complicated and consequential question.
Are the kids all right? And if not, what can we do to help them?
“Everyone has experienced some level of trauma,” says Kate Gallagher, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s director of research and evaluation. “And no one knows exactly what is going to happen next.”
Schools and parents are prepping for potential struggles with reading, math, and other subjects after the virus disrupted two separate school years.
Read about potential academic problems and solutions here
But some educators and experts are also worried about the social and emotional well-being of young children after a year of COVID-19. Gallagher and others are combing through research on children who survived other traumatic contexts, such as war and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, looking for clues on what to expect in years to come.
Several local school districts are adopting or strengthening social-emotional curriculum for the upcoming school year, hoping to increase students’ resilience.
And while school administrators and teachers report few behavioral problems, they also note that many students are struggling with being in school for a full school day and various other anxieties.
Those problems can be compounded at schools like Gomez, located in southeast Omaha in a ZIP code that has a high poverty rate and the highest rate of COVID cases in the city. When the school first closed last March, Butler’s first worry wasn’t primarily about students’ reading or math.
“Everybody’s first question was: How are these kids going to get fed?” the teacher says.
One in four Douglas County children sometimes don’t get enough food to eat during the pandemic, according to an estimate made by Voices for Children in Nebraska. Statewide, one out of every three families worried about having enough money to pay rent last summer.
That lack of security and related parental stress can harm children, even if economic conditions improve and even if the family avoided serious sickness during COVID, Gallagher says.
Students who stayed in remote schooling for most of the past year may also face potential problems tied to that isolation.
Tess Larson, the mother of 7-year-old Jamal, a student at Dundee Elementary, decided to keep him remote to protect her family from health dangers associated with COVID.
Before COVID, he played on a basketball team, took swim lessons and acting classes, and performed with a competitive dance team. Those activities all halted for Jamal in March 2020. They will start to return next month, Tess says.
Jamal has stayed in touch with friends and relatives via FaceTime and Zoom, and Tess thinks he will gradually reacclimate to interacting in person. But it won’t be simple or immediate.
She senses that his tolerance for stress is lower than it used to be. She thinks that Jamal has settled into a routine at home and will struggle at first with sharing, taking turns with others, and having patience with people other than herself.
“He hasn’t had a chance to practice those soft skills,” she says. She has enrolled Jamal in summer school this year to start academic and social-emotional reacclimation. She expects to get a few phone calls that he’s struggling to pay attention, but she also knows he’s itching to go.
Tess recently let Jamal order a new pair of shoes for summer school. “That was a big deal for him, like ‘oh my gosh this is really happening!’”
The stress is present even for children who have been back in school for months. In Butler’s Gomez Elementary classroom, the first grade teacher spends time each day, sometimes with the help of a school counselor, talking to students about their “big feelings.” Butler’s class also does simple stress relief exercises like belly breathing.
When a first grader talks anxiously about getting COVID—say, when a mask briefly falls off—Butler reassures the student by providing factual information.
The first grade teacher isn’t particularly worried about students’ ability to share or other interpersonal skills. Butler is worried about the students’ ability to concentrate all day.
“The second half of the year, I’m hearing them say how much they love school,” Butler says. But: “We have felt that heightened anxiety. The kids are definitely feeling that.”
How much COVID will affect young children likely depends on a host of factors, including their age, says Gallagher.
There is some evidence showing that preschool-age children are struggling during the pandemic. In a survey done by Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research, parents reported elevated levels of significant social-emotional problems, including conduct problems. They also reported fewer pro-social behaviors, like cooperation, than similar surveys done before the pandemic.
Gallagher says she is most worried about infants and toddlers, who have fewer coping mechanisms to respond to stress, such as “internal monologues” to help them problem solve during stressful situations.
It is crucial that parents communicate frequently with young children of all ages right now, she says, using children’s books and soothing words. Kids need to get the following messages right now: You are OK. You will be OK. Things will get better. You will play with your friends again soon.
And it is crucial to look for the silver linings in a 12-month period that often felt undeniably dark.
Gallagher is thinking about how children of the Great Depression often grew up remembering the hardship they endured—but also the happiness they experienced amidst that hardship.
“A first grader can remember this pandemic, can remember it probably as stressful but that some things were fun,” the Buffett Institute research and evaluation director says. “We can remember joy in the context of pain.”
“There is potential here that, if managed properly, kids will become more resilient.”
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.