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After the Dust Settles 

For the past few days, I’ve been busy setting up my new classroom.  I’m sure you know what that entails.  For me, it’s a new beginning, and a chance to hopefully put some of this past year behind me.  Yet, I wonder as I look at the now-empty student desks, will my new students be able to put the past behind them?  Will they be able to have the normal “first-day jitters” or will those jitters be shrouded in darkness and fear?   What about my new colleagues?  Will their “back to school dreams” be fraught with those images from last year?  Will we wrestle with guilt for surviving?  

Survivor’s guilt – I have heard this term bounced around a few times the past year, but did not know that it is a true mental health condition that cannot be ignored.  It is defined by as – 

Survivor’s guilt is when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  (Medical News Today)  .  

There is a lengthy list of individuals who might suffer from this, but not added to this list is pandemic survivors.  It should be updated.  If you get a chance, please read through the symptoms of one struggling with this.  I believe with all my heart we will have students and staff members struggling in this way in the upcoming year.  This past year, I’ve tutored online and have noticed quite a few of these symptoms among my students:  lack of motivation, problems sleeping, problems eating, disconnection, and fear.  We really should not be surprised.  Their parents are more worried about their child falling behind academically.

These are not to be ignored.  We may have students who lost family members to COVID-19 or friends. Or individuals who had the virus and lived.  This is traumatic no matter the circumstance behind how the event occurred.  I believe it will be imperative for schools to have programs or people in place to address the needs of students and staff experiencing this.  

Don’t Sweep It Under the Rug

The worst thing we can do is tell students and teachers who ‘survived’ the pandemic to “get over it.” or pretend their pain is not real by sweeping it under the rug.  The answer should be to encourage and support them in seeking mental health help.  Perhaps the school counselor could step in and help instead of prepping for standardized tests in the school year.  Of the list of activities to help promote healing in one experiencing the trauma, I like the suggestions for helping others.  So please encourage your students to share their stories, donate blood, make another donation of some kind, send a care package to someone. Lots of little things we could encourage others to do on the road towards their healing. 

I teach middle school writing, so I will plan on giving them opportunities to write in their journals anything that is bothering them because writing is good for the soul.  I am already aware that I will need to be aware of writings hinting at self-harm or suicide.  It would not be the first nor will it be the last.  If you encounter this, take it seriously.  It is a cry for help, and the student chose your class in which to seek help.  Do not let them down.  

Another article I found calls what we’ve endured this year a collective trauma.  It also explains how some survivors of COVID-19 unknowingly infected others before realizing they had the virus.  This was the #1 reason I resigned from my teaching position last year because I knew the risk was too great.  Yet, I sometimes feel guilty knowing now many colleagues and students became infected.  This has now been called sideline guilt.  

No matter the term, school districts must recognize this and prepare to help their students and staff.  Yes, there has been some hope the past few months with vaccines, and the decrease of case numbers, but we are far from over.  The battle for our mental health has now begun and will be at the forefront for many years to come.

Middle school Language Arts teacher in the private school sector and loving every moment of it. After...

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