Educators Say COVID-19 Has Greatly Exacerbated the Grief Support Crisis in Schools, According to New Survey
Sarah Hager Mosby
NEW YORK and WASHINGTON– America’s educators see an urgent need to provide greater social-emotional support to students as COVID-19 amplifies the increasing prevalence of grief in our nation’s schools, according to a national survey of educators released today by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the New York Life Foundation.
Even before COVID-19, grief in the classroom was an all-too common occurrence, with an estimated one in 14 children in the U.S. experiencing the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. Educators echo this experience: when asked how many students each year typically need their support due to the loss of a loved one, 87% said at least one and 25% said six or more. Now, as students return to the classroom, educators anticipate the potential for these numbers to increase. Of the educators surveyed, more than one in four (26%) report that a member of their school community (including direct family members of students, teachers or staff) had died from the coronavirus.
“COVID-19 is powerfully and poignantly illustrating the challenges our nation’s educators already faced in confronting grief in the classroom each and every day. As the need grows, we all have a critical role to play in providing greater bereavement support to students wherever and however our school communities come together,” said Heather Nesle, president of the New York Life Foundation, one of the largest corporate funders of childhood bereavement support.
Educators Prioritize Social-Emotional Support
The survey reveals the heightened focus on social-emotional learning as a mechanism to help students cope with grief, with 75% of educators in strong agreement that social and emotional support for students has never been more important. Despite this acknowledgment, educators feel under-prepared to tackle students’ growing social and emotional needs:
- Only 15% of educators said they feel very comfortable addressing students’ emotional needs—including anxiety, grief, and/or trauma—that have been caused or intensified by the coronavirus outbreak.
- Seventy-five percent of educators say that COVID-19 has opened their eyes to the immense impact of grief and loss.
- Eighty-four percent of educators also say that the coronavirus has made them more aware of the impact of “non-death related losses.”
When asked about “non-death related losses,” educators said physical, mental health and financial challenges related to COVID-19 were areas where they felt least prepared to lend support.
“As people across the United States grapple with this crisis, grief and anxiety is at an all-time high. I hear this trauma every day from educators, parents and students. Their voices, and the voices of others on the front lines make abundantly clear that our students are struggling and need us now more than ever. Whether it’s remotely or in-person, we are working hard to make school a place where everyone feels safe and welcome. From organizing trainings on trauma, grief and loss; to delivering PPE that 90% of our educators are paying for now out of pocket; to negotiating safety protocols and procedures – we’re confident we can use this data to help inform our work to best support our kids. The AFT is committed to fighting for all educators to work in collaborative, healthy school environments that have the appropriate training and resources to help both students and educators thrive, and deal with the unique challenges we face today,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten
Support for Grieving Students is Critical and Educators Stand Ready to Help
Although educators have been tasked with addressing many pandemic-related challenges this academic year, most remain strongly committed to supporting grieving students and seeking additional training to do so:
- 95% of educators say they would like to do more to help grieving students.
- 91% of educators say they would be interested in participating in bereavement training offered through their school or district.
As schools across the U.S. grapple with the coronavirus, educators attest to the heightened challenges that they face, but also to the significant impact they can have as they help students cope.
“It is more crucial than ever that educators create safe, supportive classrooms because increased isolation and decreased social support caused by social distancing may intensify grieving students’ feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Grieving students need to know that you recognize their loss, that you care, and that you want to be supportive. Just a few simple words can make all the difference,” said Julie Taylor, a school counselor, AFT member and Ohio School Counselor Association Counselor of the Year.
In an effort to get critical grief resources into the hands of educators:
- The New York Life Foundation launched the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative (GSSI) in 2018, which trains New York Life agents and employees as GSSI Ambassadors to present grief resources to local schools to help educators build a more robust culture of grief support and resiliency. Schools that agree to strive to become grief sensitive receive a $500 grant to help them enhance the grief support and resources available to their school community. To date, more than 2,300 GSSI presentations have been completed in local schools across 48 states. To continue to serve this need and in response to COVID-19, the program has gone virtual, allowing schools to request a remote presentation.
- The New York Life Foundation partnered with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement in the creation of new online materials specific to COVID-19 including new modules for educators and parents on talking to kids about the coronavirus, tips for coping, sample scripts for classroom educators and guidelines for virtual memorials, among other topics.
- The AFT coordinates professional learning for affiliates around student resilience and healing from grief, loss and trauma. In the last 5 years, the AFT has prepared over 50 trainers to serve over 550 educators in communities from coast to coast.
- AFT also promotes the work of great partners via Share My Lesson. For example, nearly 10,000 educators have accessed self-paced professional learning supports via the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.
Hart Research Associates conducted the survey of 675 AFT members, including 458 classroom teachers as well as 217 paraprofessionals, school nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other school staff members. Interviews were conducted online from July 26 through August 18, 2020.
About the New York Life Foundation
Inspired by New York Life’s tradition of service and humanity, the New York Life Foundation has, since its founding in 1979, provided over $360 million in charitable contributions to national and local nonprofit organizations. The Foundation supports programs that benefit young people, particularly in the areas of educational enhancement and childhood bereavement. The Foundation also encourages and facilitates the community involvement of employees and agents of New York Life through its Volunteers for Good program and Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative. To learn more, please visit www.newyorklifefoundation.org.
About the American Federation of Teachers
The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do. To learn more, please visit www.aft.org.
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The AFT represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.