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How Schools Can Help Kids Heal After A Year Of 'Crisis And Uncertainty'


Many school leaders will tell you, with schools reopening, their top priority right now isn't math or reading - it is kids' mental health because this year has been stressful for so many children and traumatic for some. We've got the story now of what some schools are doing to help kids feel safe and ready to learn again. Here's reporter Christine Herman from member station WILL and NPR's Cory Turner.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Kai is 9 years old, and he lives in Washington, D.C., with his mom and his baby sister Alaina.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: During the pandemic, he's been doing taekwondo virtually. And sometimes his mom joins him.


KAI HUMPHREY: And my head (laughter) was so close to your face.

HUMPHREY-WALL: But I was not going to hit you.

KAI: But you were close to.

TURNER: He's also a master at tickling his sister.

KAI: Tickle, tickle, tickle, tickle.

ALAINA: (Laughter).

KAI: Tickle, tickle, tickle, tickle.

ALAINA: (Laughter).

HERMAN: And last but not least, Kai loves being around people.

KAI: I would be the first person ever to have all - every single person in the world as my friend.

TURNER: And so his mom, Rashida Humphrey-Wall, says spending the past year learning remotely away from all those people...

HUMPHREY-WALL: It was a big blow to him. Stuff just keeps getting taken. And he just didn't understand, like, when am I going to see my friends again?

HERMAN: Even before the pandemic, Kai struggled with worried feelings. His father died several years ago. And Alaina, who's 2, was born with a serious heart condition, Down syndrome and a fragile immune system.

TURNER: When COVID hit, experts say lots of kids like Kai felt their worries kick into overdrive. And the pandemic has led to big spikes in both child stress and trauma.

MATT BIEL: Kids have had extended exposure to chaos, crisis, uncertainty.

HERMAN: Matt Biel is a child psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. And he says because of all this COVID-related stress...

BIEL: If kids don't return to school and get a lot of attention paid to security, safety, predictability and re-establishing of strong, secure relationships, I think that we're not going to be able to make up ground academically.

TURNER: How can schools do this? Well, mental health experts say they can start by building in time every day in every classroom for every child to share their feelings and learn some basic coping skills. Think morning circle time or, for older students, homeroom.

HERMAN: Lilian Sackett, an ESL teacher at Hernandez Middle School in Chicago, has her own morning routine. It's informed by training she got around child trauma through a school partnership with a regional children's hospital.

LILIAN SACKETT: I think we need to allow the students to share their experiences with the pandemic and to give them that safe space that we can talk about it.

TURNER: Sackett wants that space to feel safe, but also fun. When she found out her students love Bob Ross and his tranquil televised painting lessons from the 1980s and '90s, she worked him in.

SACKETT: We watch five minutes of Bob Ross. And we watched a whole, you know, painting session within one week.


BOB ROSS: Happy little tree lives right here and watches everything happen.

SACKETT: They happy trees - yeah - the happy mistakes - and they love him.


ROSS: The only rule that we have here is that painting should make you happy. You should enjoy it. And if it does that, then it's good.

SACKETT: It has to be fun for them. When they're having fun, they're so excited, they'll learn anything you throw at them.

HERMAN: Thirteen-year-old Sheyla Ramirez has benefited a lot from this kind of daily social-emotional check-in. She's an eighth-grader at the same school where Sackett teaches. Last fall was incredibly stressful for her, she says, when her entire family came down with COVID.

SHEYLA RAMIREZ: It was really weird because sometimes my head hurt, and sometimes I was really cold. And it was just like...

TURNER: Sheyla's voice trails off here, and then she tells us her uncle died of COVID early in the pandemic and that her third-grade sister was really scared when they got sick, too.

SHEYLA: My sister was like, oh, I don't want to die. And it made me feel bad because it's just like - I don't know what - I didn't know what to tell her because I was on shock, too. I never thought I would have gotten COVID.

HERMAN: But Sheyla says she made it through this hard time thanks to school and regular check-ins with her teacher, asking how she was feeling and if she needed anything.

TURNER: Sheyla also says she loved the lessons her class got in mindfulness and deep breathing.

SHEYLA: They'll say, oh, take a deep breath - one, two, three. And then I let all my mind go.

HERMAN: For many kids, this will be enough. But some, like Kai, may need more one-on-one support. And this is where school social workers and psychologists come in.

TURNER: Kai has been talking regularly with a therapist through his elementary school, and he says she has helped him come up with a plan for when he starts feeling stressed at home.

KAI: I would go in my room, lay on my bed and either watch TV or play with my toys or do something like that. And then I'll come back out when I'm more calm and happy.

HERMAN: As a solo parent, Kai's mom, Rashida, has also been under incredible stress this past year.

TURNER: So through a partnership with Georgetown, Kai's school arranged for her to see a therapist, too, for weekly parent well-being sessions.

HUMPHREY-WALL: I don't know what I would have done really, because in the beginning, I think I had depression, (ph) - anything you could think of, I probably had it.

HERMAN: Partnerships with mental health care providers can be expensive for school districts and may not be an option in rural or under-resourced areas.

TURNER: The good news is the latest COVID relief package should help, says U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat. The American Rescue Plan is sending $122 billion to K-12 schools, and she wants to be sure districts don't just prioritize math and reading.

CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO: Yes, of course, we want to make sure that our children aren't left behind during this pandemic year academically. But hold on because we also have to focus on their mental health and well-being.

HERMAN: And this flood of relief dollars will help districts be able to hire more school counselors and social workers and better train teachers.

TURNER: In the meantime, Kai is doing his best to give his big worries a big roundhouse kick. And he can't wait to get back to making friends with the entire world.

KAI: Like, I want to be free. And Alaina wants to be free. We all need to be free from this quarantine. I'm going crazy. I want to be free.

TURNER: For NPR News, I'm Cory Turner.

HERMAN: And I'm Christine Herman.


MARTIN: That story comes from a reporting partnership between NPR, Illinois Public Media and Kaiser Health News.


Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.