Last December, I stood bundled up outside my car on a side street in West Baltimore, holding a “Thinking of you” card. I was also carrying the feelings of triumph and relief teachers typically have around the holiday season: elated at making it through the grind-it-out months of the fall, and ready for a much-needed break. Yet heavy on my mind was one student. She’d been so quiet in virtual class, and when I’d reached out, I’d learned she was grieving the loss of a family member, the third of her relatives to die in the past month. Some of my colleagues at my high school had pooled together money to help this student’s family out, but we all knew that she wasn’t the only kid struggling. So many of our students have lost so much during the coronavirus pandemic, and not just time spent learning in school, but the foundation that makes children feel loved and supported—family members and loved ones.
As schools reopen their doors this fall, much of the national-media narrative around education has centered on learning loss. More than 1 million children were not enrolled in school this past year, and many of those children were kindergartners in low-income neighborhoods. The virtual landscape that students have had to navigate over the past year has been particularly challenging for our most vulnerable learners. Students living in historically redlined neighborhoods are the most likely to lack access to adequate technology and broadband connectivity. Here in Baltimore, one in three households doesn’t have access to a computer and 40 percent of households don’t have wireline internet service. We must address these problems.
But as I prepare to welcome more than 100 ninth graders to my classroom this fall, I’m also concerned about the trauma that my students have endured during this pandemic, and how we can help support them as they transition back into school. Many of my incoming ninth graders have not set foot inside a physical school building since seventh grade, and in bringing their full, authentic selves into the classroom, they are also bringing all the emotional and personal difficulties they’ve experienced. Nearly one in five Americans knows someone who has died from COVID-19. For Black Americans, that number is one in three. We also know that COVID-19 can cause stress and trauma. Schools are a place for us to nurture the minds of future generations, and we must continue to help students learn to read and write and think. But we must not ignore the impact that this type of trauma can have on students’ long-term well-being and educational attainment. We must also help our children learn how to process the immense emotional and mental hardships they have experienced.
By centering the conversation about COVID-19 and schools on how alarming learning loss is, we’re failing to address the exceptional circumstances that we expect students to learn in. Not only have we asked students to completely change the way they learn multiple times—from virtual to hybrid to fully in person—in the space of a year and a half, but we are concerned that they are not learning at the same exact pace that they did prior to the pandemic. Yet trauma affects your ability to learn. Scientists know that experiencing trauma heightens activity in the amygdala, the reptilian part of your brain that triggers fear response. When you experience trauma, your amygdala starts to interpret nonthreatening experiences as threats and causes your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for cognition, thinking, and learning, to go offline. Learning becomes difficult when your mind is constantly scanning the room, looking for danger.
For many of our Black and brown students, the trauma from the pandemic is compounded by existing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which make up something called an ACE score. Experiencing childhood trauma, and thus having a higher ACE score, increases the likelihood of developing chronic physical and mental illnesses. For my students in Baltimore, where gun violence and poverty stemming from institutional racism and discriminatory policies are constant stressors for families, the pandemic has only exacerbated the struggles they face. It’s hard to focus on reading, math, science, and social studies when you’re worried about your family’s financial situation or whether your close family member will recover from COVID-19.
The good news, though, is that one of the most effective ways to heal trauma is through human connection and trusting relationships. I feel grateful that my school and district emphasize social-emotional learning (SEL), which integrates emotional self-awareness and interpersonal-relationship skills into learning. Even before my first year of teaching, I learned about the importance of establishing SEL routines in the classroom. This can look like a “welcoming ritual” and “optimistic closure,” such as a five-minute self-reflection and share-out, at the beginning and end of each class. These simple practices can cultivate positive relationships and predictability. Restorative circles, a community-building exercise that helps students and educators discuss needs and repair interpersonal conflict and harm, can also help. We need to push school districts to prioritize students’ mental and emotional health as we go back to school. Let’s reimagine our schools as spaces in which children can heal. And let’s center grace and compassion when it comes to children who are being told to learn under exceptional circumstances—and the teachers who teach them too.
As I look forward to this upcoming school year, I’m also looking back at how last year, teachers all across the U.S. became masters of adaptability as many of us switched between virtual, hybrid, and in-person teaching. I find myself feeling the back-to-school nerves I feel every year. But this time, those nerves are heightened by a big question: What will schools look like as we forge a path forward into a world where COVID-19 is still here? I know that for my students, the part of school that has meant the most to them is the relationships they’ve built here. I saw it in how when we were virtual, kids would want to eat lunch together on Zoom. I saw it in how when we were hybrid, the kids who had struggled to learn online blossomed in the presence of caring adults in my school building. I saw it this past week when, while I was setting up my classroom, three students from last year came by and shouted “Ms. Ko!” and told me how they felt nervous and excited to be back in person. Our students crave safety, community, and trusting relationships. When we focus on those pillars, healing begins, and learning follows.