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Before the pandemic, Sara Buckley, an 8th grade science teacher at Park Middle School in Antioch, California, could handle students who were acting out during class. Understanding that trauma lies beneath disruptive behavior, she didn’t send kids to the principal for punishment. Instead, she’d talk with them to find out what was going on at home or outside of school—and then work out a plan for how to respond differently the next time they were triggered. They could visit the school’s wellness room or take a walk to calm down before returning to class.

Buckley’s response to students was part of an entire culture shift at Park Middle School towards a more supportive approach to students and their problems. Changes included meditation at the beginning of classes, a wellness room that offered counseling, yoga classes, calming music, and a host of tactile objects like squeeze balls to help bring students triggered into “fight, flight or freeze” back into the present. The culture change also spawned teacher and staff healing circles, as well as a buddy system in which teachers who were triggered could reach out to their colleagues to give them a 5-minute break. (Read about the school’s transformation in this story from 2018.)

At the core of this cultural shift, says Buckley, were the deep connections she’d built with students in their day-to-day interactions. But ever since her school transitioned to virtual teaching at the onset of the pandemic, the 23-year veteran teacher says that none of her experience prepared her for the challenges she is now encountering.

Buckley’s response to students was part of an entire culture shift at Park Middle School towards a more supportive approach to students and their problems. Changes included meditation at the beginning of classes, a wellness room that offered counseling, yoga classes, calming music, and a host of tactile objects like squeeze balls to help bring students triggered into “fight, flight or freeze” back into the present. The culture change also spawned teacher and staff healing circles, as well as a buddy system in which teachers who were triggered could reach out to their colleagues to give them a 5-minute break. (Read about the school’s transformation in this story from 2018.)

At the core of this cultural shift, says Buckley, were the deep connections she’d built with students in their day-to-day interactions. But ever since her school transitioned to virtual teaching at the onset of the pandemic, the 23-year veteran teacher says that none of her experience prepared her for the challenges she is now encountering.

“The first day of school, I found myself just staring at a bunch of icons on the screen,” says Buckley, referring to the anonymous image that appears when a student’s camera is turned off. “You’re trying to engage and get to know [the students], and it’s really, really, really difficult. I’m really off my game, because what works for me with kids is developing those relationships: saying hello when they come into the door, finding things to talk to them about, being interested in their lives. All of a sudden, I’m looking at icons on the screen, trying to figure out how to recreate that relationship.”

Buckley, her fellow teachers, administrators and staff are all testing ways to apply their well-honed trauma-responsive practices to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Making matters worse, most of the student body and their families were struggling even before the pandemic. 75 percent of students were already eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced lunches. Some .8 percent of students at Park Middle School are in foster care. And if their parents aren’t among the 14.7 million Californians who have lost jobs during the pandemic, some of the middle school students are left to care for younger siblings or elder family members while their parents work. Since the beginning of the year, attendance has hovered at 94 percent, which represents a 2 percent drop from last fall.

But the challenge of engaging students across digital platforms isn’t just an issue in schools like Buckley’s — it’s rampant everywhere. In response to a question about how serious an obstacle low student engagement is to the effective implementation of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, 47% of 568 teachers surveyed nationally said it was “very serious,” according to a report by the New York City-based Educators for Excellence.

For Park Middle School Principal John Jimno, distance learning obscures issues that would be out in the open in the classroom. “We’re not seeing kids act out in class right now,” he says. “We’re actually seeing kids not talking in class. We’re seeing kids who are logging in, but not doing any of the work, which raises a red flag.”

Counselors have begun reaching out to families through phone calls or home visits when it seems like a kid has gone “missing.” Jimno says that since the beginning of the year, counselors have contacted 25 students and their families weekly compared to 50 interactions weekly during the same period last year. Often the disengagement can be tied to practical problems, he says, such as lack of a computer or working Internet connection. But with COVID and the fallout from that, Jimno says that there’s often more going on.

“My experience with COVID is that it exploits people who are suffering. If you’re already having a hard time at home, and you were involved in interventions at school because of that, you’re probably going to need more help during COVID.”

Many are experiencing challenges with basic needs. For example, the school administration and counselors have identified at least 15 families that need food assistance. And some of those families lack transportation to pick up the food, so staff have delivered it themselves to people’s homes.

The school also has provided students with access to a virtual wellness room, where they can find such things as calming music, live webcams of puppies and yoga classes. It’s also a place where students who may be in crisis can reach out to a counselor for help.

In early October, one encounter illustrated the value of having such a space to connect. “A kid reached out to me who was feeling suicidal,” says Jaime Lefler, a counselor at Park Middle School. It was the first time that the school had to respond virtually to a student in such a grave state that he needed to be taken to the hospital.

“You’re on a video with a kid, so you can’t really make phone calls. So, I was texting with the vice principal, [Kai Montgomery] I decided the police needed to be called,” recalls Lefler. She, along with Jimno and Montgomery met the police at the house. The student was taken to the hospital. “We wanted to make sure the situation didn’t escalate. I was talking to the mom, and I was with the kid and the police officer. And I think it went pretty well. I mean, it was scary for sure, but I think we have an amazing team.”

While that student was forthcoming, Lefler says that distance learning has created obstacles for building trust. It’s not as comfortable as it was for them to just come in and sit on a beanbag chair in our office,” she says. “We’re dealing with middle schoolers. And I think that relationship-building with middle schoolers is a struggle in general, because they’re still working on social skills. Especially with kids who come from a trauma background, I think they don’t know who to trust. A lot of them have been in foster care, so they don’t necessarily trust a social worker or counselor. When you’re in a room with them, they just can understand more about your intentions and your personality.”