“The School System is broken for many families” stated an agency staff member. “It just isn’t working” said another.
“I have homeless children in my therapeutic group” states a clinician. “It is different than what residents may imagine when I say those words.” He went on to describe children whose parents have simply disappeared or been incarcerated. The children were left with a grandmother or an aunt or an older sibling—often shuttled inexplicitly from one household to another with no warning. Without the safety net of school where there is structure, encouragement, food and school supplies they are often “without any of the above.”
Family Realities: When children with few family resources are in school, staff often go out of their way to make certain someone helps them get school supplies, extra food if available and access to technology. In a virtual learning world, many of these children are in homes with no internet access in spite of computers donated to them. There may be no adult in the home during the day to help with accessing the curriculum platforms being used by the school to present lessons. The caretaker may not speak English and/or have had little formal schooling themselves and even less experience with technology. One TBH clinician stated fifty percent of children in her therapy group were homeless or in permanent foster care.
Specific Trauma: The special practices recommended to help prevent the virus from spreading are discouraging to many of these youth. Due to their experiences of life trauma, many of them are astute readers of nonverbal cues and body language in order to protect themselves. Wearing masks and keeping social distance makes it that much harder to read the cues. Thus, they feel even more anxious and struggle to learn. Traumatized children often speak in whispers—again to protect themselves. With masks—it is even more difficult to hear and understand and comfort them.
In the Hispanic and Native American cultures extended family is extremely important and being distanced or alone is traumatic. Some students with relatives in parts of the state that have been more deeply impacted by the virus are fearful for their families. The chronic stress of having no dependable education experience and hearing that the school will proceed with testing and expectations of keeping up their learning is further trauma.
New Roles: Across the country educators are struggling to develop models that truly work for all students. The lack of adequate technology is just the beginning of the challenges. Most parents—even if they have had a successful education themselves have not had training to be a teacher. How do you correct your child’s mistakes and encourage her to keep learning? If you can help her get online for the required classes—following up with tutoring and encouragement is an ongoing challenge. If you don’t understand the material yourself—how can you help?
The emotional stress and confusion about roles is dramatic. A parent—who is usually in the role of loving supporter who keeps a child safe, fed and emotionally nurtured is suddenly trying to be a task master and demanding performance in schoolwork. Confusion, stress and anger are the frequent result.
As for the teaching staff—they are trying to create ways that the virtual classes actually work. Concentrating on the educational content can leave no time for bonding with the students—reaching out to individualize learning as you might do in the classroom. Calling, emailing, sending cards or notes to families to try to strengthen the relationship is time consuming and may feel invasive to some families—the very families who most need to be reached.
National History: National research is documenting the economic losses our nation will experience due to the loss of quality education for all. In the early days of this country, wise leaders advocated for universal education as a way to level inequalities and invest in economic development. When some regions failed to guarantee universal education, community divisions and inequalities grew dramatically.
Deprived of effective education our youth will have less vocational opportunities. Deprived of the social learning that comes from being in a group with individuals of differing cultures, races and life experiences damages the social fabric of our community. Where will we all end up?
Taos Behavioral Health has the largest licensed and credentialed behavioral health staff in northern New Mexico. We can be reached at 575-758-4297, www/taosbehavioralhealth.org or at 105 Bertha St. for scheduled appointments.
Mary McPhail Gray is the Board Chair of Taos Behavioral Health and can be reached at 575-779-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org