School Workers Become 'Emergency Responders' In D.C. Communities Hit Hard By Pandemic Teachers and staff at D.C. schools now do more than just educate: they check students' welfare and study their demeanor on computer screens.
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School Workers Become 'Emergency Responders' In D.C. Communities Hit Hard By Pandemic

School Workers Become 'Emergency Responders' In D.C. Communities Hit Hard By Pandemic

School Workers Become 'Emergency Responders' In D.C. Communities Hit Hard By Pandemic

School Workers Become 'Emergency Responders' In D.C. Communities Hit Hard By Pandemic

Antonio Washington, the operations manager at Digital Pioneers Academy in Southeast, calls families to remind them to pick up boxes of food for the week. Debbie Truong/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Debbie Truong/DCist/WAMU

The urgent phone calls, text messages and emails flooded Art Mola's phone.

Students were quarantined at home, their entire families sick with COVID-19. Each week, from April through June, two or three new students reported they or a parent were infected. The mother of two students died.

"I can't even begin to describe what it's like to be at the receiving end of that call," said Mola, who is the principal at Cardozo Education Campus in Northwest Washington.

The school educates students in grades 6 through 12 and enrolls many students who live in Columbia Heights, the D.C. neighborhood with the most reported cases of COVID-19.

So when thousands of students in the city began the school year virtually on Aug. 31, teachers and school workers at Cardozo and in other parts of the city hit hard by the pandemic did not just celebrate students' return as usual. They also paid close attention to students' welfare, searching students' facial expressions and studying their demeanor on computer screens, looking for signs of stress.

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Schools have long operated as hubs for community services, feeding hungry students and providing crucial health services, especially for low-income families. They are a place where students can access mental health resources.

Those resources are more crucially needed now, as families face twin crises — the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustices epitomized by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis over the summer.

"Our students are confronted with two pandemics," said Kenya Coleman, senior director of school mental health for D.C. Public Schools. "We have to understand that our students are seeing this and they're dealing with this."

Becoming 'Emergency Responders'

The students at Cardozo and their families were at higher risk of getting sick, of losing loved ones to the virus, of facing layoffs and financial insecurity. Teachers, counselors and school staff screened students individually, asking a series of questions:

How are you doing?

Do you have food?

Are you at-risk of being evicted?

Are any family members ill?

School staff connected families to community organization and nonprofits that provide food and rental assistance.

"We knew that we had to become, for lack of a better word, emergency responders," Mola said.

Most students at the school belong to working-class families and have parents who cannot work from home. The student body is almost entirely Black and Hispanic, groups that have disproportionately become sick and died from the virus.

In the District, Black and Hispanic children are far more likely to test positive for the coronavirus than white children, according to a study published in August that examined one testing site operated by Children's National Hospital. Nonwhite children were also more likely to be exposed knowingly to the virus.

Families at Cardozo started reporting coronavirus cases to the school in early April, weeks after the pandemic shuttered schools in the spring.

Students and their families at Cardozo Education Campus were hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Debbie Truong/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Debbie Truong/DCist/WAMU

At the same time, teachers were beginning to hold classes virtually. Students were expected to use Microsoft Teams and other online platforms that were foreign to them. The entire school staff was consumed with troubleshooting technology issues and assessing students' mental health for several weeks in the spring.

Cardozo held virtual summer school for students, some of whom had fallen behind because they were sick or caring for a sick family member. In the days before July 4, Mola posted a plea to the neighborhood app, Nextdoor.

He urged revelers this year to stay away from the campus, which provides a sweeping view of the city and is a popular gathering spot to watch fireworks. Instead, he asked residents to consider "how we can be better Americans."

Mola reflected on the protests for racial justice. He started as Cardozo's principal in 2019 and was still trying to figure out his role in leading a student body whose "people have been victimized by systemic imprisonment and inhumane immigration detention centers since this country was founded."

"Maybe this year as a symbol of what independence has allowed you to achieve in life, you can choose to make a donation to our students and staff, given that most of my students' parents lost their jobs, became ill, and some actually passed away due to COVID," he said in the post.

When the school welcomed students back for the new school year, mental health staff visited virtual classrooms, introducing themselves to students. School workers are conducting online home visits with families.

"My teachers are feeling the stress and the pain that my students are going through," said Mola, who began his career as a teacher in Oakland, California. "I can't look back at any year and recall starting the new school year and already feeling exhausted."

Helping Students Through Grief

In the spring, D.C. Public Schools surveyed families about their needs. Parents ranked the areas where they wanted extra support, including access to food and jobs, said Coleman, the senior director of mental health.

One of parents' top priorities? Mental and emotional wellness, she said.

"It's worrisome to know that there is a virus that can spread so rapidly," Coleman said. "Just the basic information that we know is anxiety provoking. I wasn't surprised to find out our students and families were experiencing the pandemic in this way."

The city began offering an online support group for struggling parents and created an around-the-clock mental health hotline where parents can reach licensed social workers, psychologists and counselors. Grief counseling is available for people coping with the death of a family member.

Most schools have a full-time social worker and at least a part-time school psychologist, in addition to counselors, Coleman said. The city has invested in more mental health resources in recent years but students and community activists have long argued more are needed.

At Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Northeast, Beth Dewhurst, a reading intervention teacher, starts virtual sessions with students with a "mindfulness minute." That gives students time to reflect and practice breathing exercises. Students are encouraged to take breaks to help alleviate stress.

Dewhurst said students are having a hard time dealing with the physical separation from classmates and missing in-person milestones.

"They're struggling with that loss, that cascading loss," she said. "There's new things they're not getting to do."

KIPP D.C., the largest charter school operator in the city, held training sessions over the summer through the Wendt Center for Loss & Healing, which helps people deal with grief and trauma. The center usually provides support at KIPP D.C.'s seven campuses after a crisis, such as the death of a student or teacher.

Teachers learned to identify signs of stress and anxiety in students during the sessions, said Melissa Wade, managing director of mental health. This school year, teachers are watching students closely for fatigue and tracking students who are not logging on for live instruction.

She said KIPP is approaching the pandemic as if students and families have experienced a "universal loss."

"The pandemic has caused us to lose our routine, our regular lifestyles, our regular way of life," Wade said. "There are different levels to that grief.

Distance Learning And Mental Health

In a normal school year, when a student is frustrated or upset in class at Digital Pioneers Academy, Aliss Williams, an associate dean for socio-emotional learning, brings them to the "reflection room."

The space is dimly lit and Williams plays smooth jazz or calming music.

She asks the student to reflect on the situation that brought them to the room: What happened? Why did it happen? What could you have done differently to solve the problem?

At the middle school in Southeast D.C., Williams and other school workers are adept at identifying signs a student is having a hard time.

Teachers pay attention to students' body language and facial expressions when they walk through the front doors in the morning, Williams said. They watch how much a child is eating — a potential sign they may not have enough food at home. A teacher who notices a student is quieter than usual might ask, "Hey, what's going on?"

Digital Pioneers Academy plans on delivering meals to families from a van. Debbie Truong/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Debbie Truong/DCist/WAMU

School workers lost those ways of checking on students when learning moved online. But, at Digital Pioneers, families needed even more help.

Parents shared stories of depression and feelings of isolation, said Mashea Ashton, the charter school's founder and CEO. Two families were homeless. At least 70 families at the school had parents who lost jobs or had work hours slashed, according to a survey the school conducted.

The school gave some families $250 gift cards for groceries and prepared care packages. A donor gave $1,000 each to four families that were struggling.

In homeroom, students are given time to express how they feel. The school hired two full-time social workers this school year to support students dealing with stress and trauma. That's on top of the five school workers who were responsible for regularly checking on families after the pandemic forced the school to abruptly close in March.

"It was just all hands on deck," Ashton said.

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