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Back to School: What’s the Plan?
By Karen Gross
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 3 P. 12

While there is no single solution, several strategies can ease the challenge.

The question is straightforward: In the wake of the pandemic, can we reopen schools this fall in a manner that will benefit students and enable optimal learning and psychosocial development? The simple answer to this complex question is “yes.” The much more difficult question is how to define the parameters for success.

The pandemic has had a wide and deep impact on our schools and social service agencies. Besides the untold deaths, there have been food and job shortages, homelessness, an increase in family dysfunction, including drug and alcohol use and abusive behavior. Schools have closed and reopened, whether to provide online, hybrid, or in-person learning.

But not just the pandemic has affected our students, teachers, school counselors, and school-based social workers. Over the past 18 months, there has also been unspeakable violence, most notably a swath of mass shootings and police shootings of unarmed minorities. In addition, there was a raid on the Capitol that resulted in injury and death.

Racial and ethnic discrimination has also been at the forefront, including in terms of how the pandemic has disproportionately affected minority populations.

It is in this context that we will be reopening our public schools in the fall.

Trauma’s Impact
Prior to the pandemic, many individuals had experienced trauma. Indeed, the data show that approximately 50% of all children and 65% to 70% of all adults have had at least one traumatic event in their lives. Given the pandemic and the disheartening social events occurring in that same time frame, it can be expected that the vast majority of children and adults have been traumatized over the past 18 months. In a recent online course at Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work, trauma researcher and author of The Body Keeps the Score Bessel van der Kolk, MD, observed that while the pandemic is not traumatic per se, its impact on families, communities, workplaces, and schools often produces trauma symptomology.

We know, too, that trauma affects different people differently. There is acute trauma symptomatology, commonly termed the five “Fs” that are triggered by the autonomic nervous system: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and faint. There also is deferred trauma symptomatology involving dysregulation, dissociation, and overregulation.

Whether acute or deferred, trauma affects the brain—not only thoughts, feelings, and behavior but also the actual neurological structure. Trauma shuts off neural pathways. It negatively impacts memory, concentration, capacity to learn, cognition, and connectedness to others (exacerbated by masks and social distancing).

As described in Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, trauma impacts learning and psychosocial skills. Trauma experienced by students can be transmitted—almost like a virus—to those who work with students, including educators, social workers, and health care professionals.

It is for these reasons that we need to deliberate how educational institutions and social service organizations that serve families can best address the reopening of schools. It is not sufficient to just “reopen” as if schools and social service agencies operate like light switches. We cannot focus only on physical well-being (as important as that is). Instead, we must plan and prepare for reopening with trauma-responsive strategies, pedagogies, and environments.

Selected Strategies
Start with this reality: There is no single reopening strategy for schools/organizations. Context matters, culture matters, community engagement matters. While strategies can be identified, they need to be tailored to locations and individuals.

We may crave for a one-size-fits-all answer to how to reopen optimally, but we have to be sufficiently nimble and flexible to take suggestions that are trauma responsive and adapt them to particular situations and individuals. For those in the caregiving and service professions, it’s important to be mindful of the impact of the trauma they themselves experience.

The following are three reopening strategies focused on psychosocial wellness. Keep in mind that these are not the only available approaches and other suggestions can be layered on top of these approaches.

Strategy One
Educators frequently work in silos within schools and disciplines. School nurses, school counselors, and school social workers often operate in their own sphere with a notable lack of coordination. To combat this situation, create trauma responsive teams (TRTs) with members across disciplines to prepare and plan for school reopening and to be present for and available to all individuals (students, educators, and parents) when school actually reopens.

TRTs need to be established as soon as possible so there is adequate time for them to prepare and work together. TRTs can train educators and staff within schools and social service agencies to be prepared for the traumatized population that will be seeking their services. It’s important not to limit training to teachers and school psychologists and social workers—coaches, receptionists, bus drivers, and food service and maintenance workers also should be included. Such broad-based training is necessary because students may show trauma symptomology in a myriad of settings, not just the classroom.

However, as vital as it is, training isn’t enough. TRTs must be available when school reopens for appointments and drop-ins. For several weeks, a team member should be at the front door to welcome students. With so little human contact over the past 18 months, children and adults must be welcomed back sensitively and slowly.

Schools and organizations should designate specific rooms where a TRT member can be situated each day. Bringing in a group of outsiders who are unfamiliar with the particular institutional and community culture—no matter how well they are trained—is not ideal. Students, educators, social workers, and clients need access to a room with trained personnel who listen well, enabling them to get their autonomic nervous systems under control and their deferred trauma symptomology named and tamed. The regular presence of individuals who can provide help is beneficial, even if not everyone takes advantage of the assistance.

TRTs are a pathway to creating a trauma-responsive institutional culture. When an acute trauma such as a fire or a flood occurs, survivors receive immediate support that takes many forms, including psychological first aid. Unfortunately, we are not as experienced in dealing with chronic, ongoing trauma such as that produced by a pandemic and systemic racial and ethnic discrimination. Therefore, it has been much more challenging to handle these persistent traumas, despite the need for responsiveness.

Fortunately, TRTs can provide a long-lasting approach for dealing with chronic trauma.

Strategy Two
When folks return to a place that they formerly occupied after a lengthy absence, what are their expectations? Will it have changed? Will the space require adjustments? For example, at school, desks may be stationed farther apart and partitions may have been installed. Will the wall décor—some of which was created by students—still be there?

As Tony Hiss observed in his book The Experience of Place, space and place send a message. As students return to the classroom, there’s an opportunity to create and message differently, while preserving key items that elicit positive memories. Consider, for example, dedicating a wall (ideally a large blank wall) where students, educators, and social workers and clients can post their thoughts on Post-it notes anonymously. Imagine many people feeling comfortable enough to both identify and share feelings. Call it a form of installation art. Photographs could be snapped and mugs or placemats created to memorialize the moment.

While we may want trauma to disappear, it does not. Once traumatized, forever traumatized, although the symptomology can be ameliorated through a myriad of existing and developing approaches. Recognizing and, in essence, honoring trauma makes it easier to appreciate that not everything can be erased.

There is power for those who post and there is power for those who read what is posted, especially if they read feelings or thoughts that mirror their own. It is beneficial for those who are traumatized to realize that while they may feel alone and are the only one experiencing a particular thought, there are others who share their thinking.

In addition to commenting on a wall, consider institutions that lift up floor tiling and replace it with writing boards. With buckets of chalk nearby, individuals can write under their feet what they are thinking and feeling. And, as with the wall postings, feelings may change depending on the time of day, where the person is in the building, and the experiences of that particular day. Like the wall postings, these floor chalkings can be photographed and shared. One could even create a book of the first 30 floor images created and accompany them with poems or essays written by members of the community.

The point of all of this is that we do vastly better acknowledging trauma; we do vastly better when we see that it does not disappear; we do vastly better when we see that we are not alone; we do vastly better when we realize that our feelings can and do change over time.

Similar approaches to writing about traumatic experiences as a community can be found in Eight Blocks Away: Memoirs of September 11, 2001, released by New York Law School following 9/11 and reissued on the 10th anniversary of that tragic event.

The publication allowed members of the community, whether they were eyewitnesses to the tragedy or experienced it from afar, to share their thoughts. Available free, it can serve as a prototype for how to think about memorializing traumatic events.

One other benefit to wall postings and floor writing: If and when new trauma occurs (which it will, given all that is happening in our world), it will often retrigger earlier trauma. If there are opportunities to address retriggered trauma, it will help with its amelioration.

Think about it this way: We all carry an invisible backpack filled with trauma. The size of our backpacks differs from person to person. When trauma is retriggered, our backpack grows heavier and arouses the preexisting trauma. However, by recognizing the existence of these invisible backpacks, we will better manage the symptomology.

Strategy Three
Embedded in the previous two strategies and unearthed here, we need to create connections across individuals within institutions that are reopening. We need to help students connect to each other. We need to find ways for adults—whether they are educators, school counselors, or social workers—to connect with those whom they are teaching or counseling. The recently developing data on Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) and Positive Adult Experiences, including the work of Christina Bethell, PhD, a professor and director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, on the impact of PCEs on adult mental wellness, support the critical role played by connection and reciprocity for those who have been traumatized.

Our brains are wired for connectivity. Trauma literally truncates connectivity, including through the shutdown of neural pathways. Masks and social distancing exacerbate this sense of disconnection. Online learning has, for many, also contributed to the lack of a sense of connectivity.

There are many pathways for creating connectivity. However, we must be mindful that it is not instantaneous; there needs to be trust established. In a world filled with trauma, that isn’t immediate.

Indeed, reciprocity and connection between educators/social workers and students/clients may at first be “one way,” with the professional reaching out and getting little or nothing in return. But over time, students and clients can come to trust and connect with a nonfamily member who genuinely and authentically believes in the student/client. That belief is what allows connection to be created.

Charlie Mackesy’s book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse illustrates this concept beautifully. The boy says to the horse, “Sometimes I think you believe in me more than I do.” And the horse responds, “You’ll catch up.”

Linking together physical objects is another tool to create connection between individuals. Picture giving everyone a box of colorful paper clips. Each person can create a three- to six-foot-long chain. In doing so, there is power in simply physically connecting one paper clip to another. Then, everyone can fidget with the links they have created. Students can link to each other or to adults; they can create extended chains.

This is messaging connection kinesthetically. And the paper clips can lead to discussions surrounding color. For example, participants could be asked, “What color of paper clip do you feel like?”

In short, one box of paper clips goes a long way.

The suggested three strategies—in all their dimensions—can ease the strain associated with the reopening of schools. As noted, these are not the only strategies available. Nevertheless, as a collective, they alert us to the importance of preparing and planning for reopening. It is not too late to start now. Indeed, for the benefit of students, clients and, all the professionals with whom they work, it’s a must.

While the suggested strategies have some costs attached, here is a critical point: They are doable. The most difficult aspect may be convincing those in charge that they are worth the effort. Here’s hoping that’s not a huge hurdle to clear.

— Karen Gross is an educator and author of both adult and children’s books. A former college president and former Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of Education (Obama Administration), she specializes in student success with an emphasis on the impact of trauma on learning and psychosocial development. She is a continuing education instructor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work and is an author in residence at the Molly Stark Elementary School in Vermont. Her latest book, winner of the DKG Apple Award, is titled Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door (Teachers College Press, June 2020). She can be reached at karengrosseducation.com, a site that also lists her other published books, podcasts, articles, blogs, and media appearances.