An educator reflects on her experiences following Hurricane Katrina and how they can shed light on healing students dealing with COVID-related trauma

From Katrina to COVID: Kids heal in communities

An educator reflects on her experiences following Hurricane Katrina and how they can shed light on healing students dealing with COVID-related trauma

After the initial emergency passed and life seemed to settle into a routine, the stress remained. Residual trauma existed from the variety of experiences related to evacuation, loss of home, loss of family, fear for family members and friends who were left behind, anxiety for those putting their own lives at risk to save others, and the exhaustion from returning to the reality of trying to rebuild. Stress became a constant, and when the pressure continues over long periods, the brain and body are impacted.

Children are particularly affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and natural disasters can cause long-term mental health challenges for children. ACEs include abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), neglect, losing a parent (death, divorce, incarceration), being exposed to domestic violence or community violence, having a parent with mental illness, and having a member of the household who abuses drugs or alcohol. Death, violence, or mental illness were all consequences of the hurricane’s traumatic events and the subsequent flooding.

Community is healing

The good news is that positive childhood experiences (PCEs) are shown to build a protective barrier around children and can help them build resilience and protect against the long-term impact of ACEs. As the school opened in October after the hurricane and in the middle of the immediate clean-up of the city, teachers had a great mantle of responsibility:

  • to be a caring, supportive adult;
  • to create safe environments;
  • to provide space to rebuild supportive friendships;
  • to develop a sense of belonging for everyone in the school community; and
  • to talk about the hurricane sharing feelings and experiences.

During the months after our return to school in New Orleans, there were multiple opportunities to build connections with those who returned. I remember the mornings when we invested our time in simply sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other. As the weeks passed, children opened up more about the trauma they experienced during the storm, the evacuation, and the months of uncertainty. Several children lost family members or were still living separated from loved ones. Others knew neighbors or friends who did not survive.

The beauty of sharing these stories and our ongoing, shifting emotions was that we built connections with each other and we all knew that what we were experiencing was acceptable and to be expected. Hearing about what others endured gave us space to provide extra grace and patience when a particular day did not go exactly as planned. We felt a strong sense of community. It’s always lovely to spend time each day in a place where you know you belong.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us, and the instability, uncertainty, mental illness, death, and loss that many have felt could have a particular impact on children. As we continue through new variants, never-ending changes in guidance plans for opening school, and discussions about vaccinations, we must also find ways to build protective factors around ourselves and the children we influence each day.

Educators, leaders, policy designers, and politicians must prioritize not only the physical safety of our students, but also their emotional safety. Schools must embrace their community and commit the time and resources to build connections, create belonging, prioritize mindful practices, create space for sharing experiences, support children as they make new friendships, connect families, and structure the day to help them feel in control and safe to learn. Discipline must be based on trauma-informed practices for all students, and teachers need space to breathe and rest.

This moment is a grand opportunity for our country to step back and to re-prioritize what truly matters. Learning should be joyful, and schools should feel safe. Instead of focusing on the deficit of learning lost last year, let’s build upon the new things we all learned, such as prioritizing our well-being above the achievement of medals or high scores. We have witnessed many folks bravely share their fears and difficult experiences, and the mental health impact of those. Let’s give each other overwhelming acceptance, understanding, grace, support, and a sense of belonging. Let’s learn from researchers, past experiences, and through the example of others and, this school year, let’s prioritize the well-being of our children above all else.

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