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Students struggle to learn in the face of trauma. Colorado school districts’ first lesson for them this fall: how to cope.

Recognizing how much kids’ lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19, school leaders are prioritizing their social-emotional wellbeing.

Jacqueline Maldonado checks her son’s homework as her daughter does an online math lesson at their home in Timnath on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Maldonado started homeschooling her 8-year-old twins, Cecilia and Ruben, this week when they would have returned to school after Spring Break. (Valerie Mosley/Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Before Alamosa School District, No. Re-11J can begin teaching its students this fall, its leaders, teachers and staff members have a lot of their own learning to do. 

They need to get to know the students they’ll instruct this next school year, understand what might concern them about returning to school and hear from families about what worked for them during remote learning and what didn’t. 

And so leading up to the start of the school year on Aug. 26, the district’s teachers will interview students one on one — all 2,300 of them — along with their families.

It’s one strategy the southern Colorado school district is rolling out as part of a broader commitment to being mindful of students’ social-emotional needs at the beginning of a school year that will feel anything but normal.

That commitment cuts across many of Colorado’s school districts as they scramble to figure out how to best educate students in the fall as the coronavirus crisis remains unresolved. Regardless of how classes play out during the 2020-21 school year — whether they’re in person, online or conducted through a hybrid approach — district leaders know that they’ll have to prioritize the social-emotional wellbeing of their students as much as their academics, if not more.

“If students don’t feel safe, can’t regulate their emotions, build connections and have a sense of belonging, it’s difficult for them to learn and engage in complex, higher order thinking skills and mindsets,” said Jamie Murray, Cañon City School District’s behavioral health coordinator.

Both Alamosa School District and Cañon City School District have spent much of the summer plotting how to best help students cope with the trauma they’ve experienced over the past handful of months, joining eight other Colorado districts in the Strategic Reopening Collaborative formed by the Colorado Education Initiative. The nonprofit, which focuses on improving Colorado’s public education system and creating greater equity, has been coaching the districts on how to devise reentry plans framed around the social-emotional learning and mental health needs of students, families and staff members and one centered on strong relationships.

Miles Love, 12, works on an online physical science problem in a Google chat room with one of his Manhattan Middle School classmates as his brother, Foster, 7, who is in first grade at Pioneer Elementary School, takes a break from his studies on March 31, 2020. This is the first week that the Boulder Valley School District has used all-online learning to teach its students. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

But CEI aims to impact far more than 10 districts. The organization has launched a website full of strategies the districts have developed so that other districts across the state and country can find inspiration when trying to define their own approach to social-emotional health in their school communities.

A separate tool, the Reconnected Learning Hub, is expanding from a focus on health and wellness in schools to reconnecting through relationships. CEI has partnered with Climb Higher Colorado on the online platform, which The Colorado Health Foundation has supported with a grant. Within the platform, educators can share resources and information and form groups.

CEI hopes districts and teachers across the country can use the hub to exchange their ideas and practices related to students’ social-emotional learning needs “so that we can all learn together during this tremendously uncertain moment,” said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at CEI.

CEI’s focus on social-emotional wellbeing follows a statewide needs assessment it conducted in partnership with the Colorado Department of Education in the spring. The results indicated that more than half of responding districts identified student emotional support as a top priority.

Mascareñaz noted the state of flux many families are living in, with traditional education systems paused or hard for communities to access as schools move to virtual or hybrid learning or are still figuring out if they can open classrooms in person.

“That creates a lot of uncertainty for families and communities and educators,” Mascareñaz said.

That uncertainty has amplified stress levels, said Angela Narayan, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver.

“Uncertainty is really hard for everyone to deal with, and it’s particularly hard for kids to deal with because they don’t have the reasoning abilities or coping skills that adults have,” Narayan said. “Prolonged uncertainty can be a major source of stress for everyone.”

Narayan said she can’t assume that she knows the range of traumatic exposure children have experienced throughout the pandemic. No one can.

“There are so many different types of stressful events that could have happened to individual children or families or communities or schools,” she said, laying out a long list of examples, including children witnessing family members or friends getting infected by COVID-19, losing someone they know and being isolated from other family members or close friends.

Some district leaders in Colorado sense that their students also have suffered hardships such as accessing basic needs like food and shelter. Other leaders don’t yet have a clear picture of the trauma their students have endured and are in the process of consulting families about life during the pandemic.

“Understanding the extent of what kids have been through” is the first step in providing social-emotional care, Narayan said, adding “if you don’t ask what happened, you won’t know.” 

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The next step is asking how a child’s experience has influenced them, their behavior, emotions, ability to pay attention, friends, sense of self, self-esteem, understanding of how the world works and sense of hopefulness or hopelessness about the future, she said.

Narayan worries for kids who have lived through upsetting circumstances and who haven’t been asked about those circumstances or who haven’t had a chance to correctly process and understand them.

Neglecting to ask what happened to kids could lead to “more severe consequences for their socio-emotional adjustment,” she said, as it opens up the possibility for inaccurate assumptions to be made and doesn’t bring to light what kids experienced.

Surveys and check-ins galore

CEI led the 10 districts involved in its collaborative through a rapid-fire design process that Mascareñaz describes as a “design sprint,” in which they assembled teams of school leaders and district leaders along with students and families if possible. Each district team designed ideas aligned with four major concepts: connect, assess and prepare, reassure and inspire and address inequities.

Each participating district then had to put action behind its ideas and collect feedback from students and families and, from there, redesigned those ideas to fit its districts needs. They’ve tried new things, built new concepts, put new materials together, tested their ideas with their community and ultimately created a 90-day reentry plan that took into account social-emotional learning and development, Mascareñaz said.

CEI reached out to a bunch of districts and offered its design sprint for free to the first 10 districts that responded. Along with Alamosa and Cañon City, the districts involved included Boulder Valley School District, Clear Creek School District RE-1, Colorado Springs District 11, East Grand School District, Fremont School District RE-2, Greeley-Evans School District 6, Holyoke School District RE-1J and Mesa County Valley School District 51.

“Regardless of context, location or size, districts and educators around the state are banding together to reopen with a social-emotional learning lens and a relationship-driven lens,” Mascareñaz said.

Curtis Durham helps his son, Wyatt, 10, with schoolwork at home on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, following the closure of JeffCo Public Schools in response to the new coronavirus. Durham is considering homeschooling his two children. He’s giving homeschooling a trial run while his kids learn online through the district. (Dagny Durham, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At least some of the districts are investing a lot of time and energy into seeking input from students, families and staff members. In Alamosa, where families will be able to decide whether they want in-person classes or online instruction, teachers will begin conducting individual family interviews from the second week of August up to the day before school starts. Those interviews will either take place virtually or at an assigned time outside school with appropriate social distancing and health precautions, Assistant Superintendent Marsha Cody said.

Through the interviews, teachers can immediately begin building relationships with their students, inform their students about health precautions and what they can expect their school day to look like “so they aren’t afraid,” Cody said. Teachers also want to ask families what they love about their student, what they’re concerned about and how best to communicate.

The district is taking a parallel approach with its staff, Cody said, as administrators complete interviews with staff members, asking them what worked in the spring, what didn’t work, what concerns and questions they have, what their needs entail and what kind of support they could use.

“We can’t assume that we know what they need, but from the conversation we can determine what those needs are,” Cody said.

Both Alamosa School District and Sheridan School District No. 2 will tackle the social-emotional health of their districts with funding from Caring For Colorado, which gave more than $100,000 to the two districts toward their re-entry plans.

In Clear Creek School District, leaders are leaning into the school year with a similar mindset, concentrating on building community and relationships no matter how classes unfold. The district, located in the mountains west of Denver and planning on full in-person learning beginning on Aug. 18, has increased its mental health resources for students, bumping up the number of hours students can receive mental health services from Jefferson Center for Mental Health. Superintendent Karen Quanbeck said the district is also reaching out to area counselors and therapists asking if they can develop some half-hour onsite check-in sessions for staff members.

“It’s taking care of the adults who take care of the kids,” Quanbeck said.

Cañon City School District is preparing to equip teachers with activities that will help them address students’ social-emotional needs in ways that align with trauma-informed care, according to Murray, the district’s behavioral health coordinator. Those activities will support teachers in working with their students to understand physical safety, coping mechanisms, emotional identity and safety, and how to build social-emotional connections that are genuine and create a sense of belonging.

The district, which will start classes on Aug. 17 with full day in-person classes for elementary school students, in-person classes for middle school students over a slightly shorter school day, a hybrid model for high schoolers and a full-time online model for any family who wants it, will also circulate a survey to middle and high school students and parents of elementary school kids. That survey will assess students’ social-emotional and behavioral health. The district has been administering a similar survey to secondary students for the past two years and is now opening it up to parents of younger children.

“That allows us to provide students with additional targeted supports based on what they share,” Murray said.

The district will send a separate survey out to parents in the first month of school to gauge the impact of the pandemic on their livelihood and their ability to access essentials like food, shelter and medical care.

Cañon City School District will also open up time for teachers to connect individually with students during the first two weeks of school, Murray said, so that kids who aren’t comfortable sharing in a group setting can talk to an adult.

CEI has encouraged the district to eye its reopening through the experiences of staff members, students and families.

Murray is “moderately concerned” about her students’ social-emotional wellbeing as August nears — a feeling tempered by optimism.

“I feel like once we get kids back to school and we establish routines and we’re able to recreate and establish new relationships, that kids will begin to regulate,” she said.

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