Back-to-school 2020 is unprecedented in our modern history: we are still in the midst of a raging pandemic in which we have lost 190,000 family members and neighbors. Our students are returning to school—in person or online—having collectively experienced the mass trauma of lost loved ones, their families’ financial insecurities, and a spring and summer robbed of friends, camps, and the accompanying rituals of adolescence.
As New Orleans educators and advocates for children, we are reflecting on the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing manifestations of that trauma for our community and our children. With humility and transparency, we examine the mistakes we made in our efforts to reopen schools and educate children, especially children with disabilities, in the wake of that unimaginable disaster and loss. We hope that our lessons learned will prove valuable to educators nationwide as they reopen schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Be cautious jumping back into rigorous instruction.
Post-Katrina, educators citywide sought to provide a sense of normalcy in schools and to maintain a relentless focus on learning and closing achievement gaps where possible. This approach was informed by a shared awareness of the extraordinary achievement gaps students faced due to the convergence of systemic racism and intergenerational poverty with an interruption in schooling that could last months or more. But jumping both feet first into rigorous instruction meant that post-Katrina schools didn’t devote time to assessing the emotional wellness of students or staff, and the emphasis on academic instruction came at the expense of adopting social-emotional curricula. Specifically, local schools didn’t conduct behavioral health universal screenings to measure students’ rates of trauma nor marshall responsive mental health supports; additionally, no time was set aside for healing-focused or trauma-sensitive activities like unstructured play, group therapy circles, and other relationship-building and strengthening activities. The multifaceted needs of students with disabilities were left at the door, and little planning or coordination was done to ensure schools were prepared to offer the full continuum of educational and related services to which students with disabilities are entitled, beyond paying lip service to “inclusion.” Centering values and priorities around academics and getting students to grade level meant we overlooked the wellbeing of the “whole child” that needed to be reached in order to close achievement gaps.
Do not rationalize a “no-excuses” model as a mechanism for safety and control.
This is especially relevant in today’s climate, where the very-real fears of community spread could mistakenly deputize educators as public health police with zero tolerance for student noncompliance with social distancing and masking guidelines. We painfully learned that zero tolerance around behavior expectations does not create a positive school climate, nor does it promote safety and control. Additionally, this type of rigid school climate sets up students with disabilities for failure, potentially putting individualized behavior intervention planning, for example, into conflict with zero tolerance for conduct that is likely a student’s manifestation of disability and/or trauma. Many of our schools’ post-Katrina reliance on a “no-excuses” discipline model resulted in school suspension rates as high as 60% for all students and led to intensive corrective action plans for multiple schools that failed to follow the procedural safeguards owed to students with disabilities in disciplinary removals. This only pushed students further away from school and kept them from cultivating trusting relationships with educators. We urge schools to welcome students back this fall to buildings that are implementing a continuum of evidence-based practices that align academic, behavioral, social, and emotional supports to improve education for all students (e.g., Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)).
Do not assume that responsibility for our children’s mental health needs is outside the domain of our public schools.
Over the period of post-Katrina recovery, there was a collective desire amongst educators to demonstrate the resiliency and recovery of students through strong academic gains. Responsibility for their mental health needs felt best delegated to public behavioral health agencies and outside of the education system’s control. Similarly, a lack of preparation to address the specific needs of students with disabilities resulted in a systemic breakdown of both referrals for special education evaluations and prevented the appropriate integration of behavioral services and interventions. But the reality was that students of all ages were demonstrating acute incidents of crisis. Whether they were indicative of a need for special education services, insufficient implementation of special education services, or simply a cry for help, these incidents frequently became issues that demanded educators’ immediate attention during the school day. We urge schools to proactively seek out training, services, and partnerships with trained professionals to meet the behavioral health needs of all students and to be diligent in their data collection processes that indicate when it’s time to think about a special education referral. More than ever, it’s imperative that schools communicate with families, understand their experiences during the shutdown period, and listen to their needs and concerns. Additionally, recent research from the Institute for Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES) notes that in the post-disaster recovery phase, schools should receive “trainings at multiple levels … to assist [them] in being able to realize, recognize, and respond to increased levels of trauma conditions in students.” Additionally, IWES recommends that post-COVID disaster recovery should include increased student access to school-based mental health services.
As a country, we have the opportunity to learn from the lessons of post-Katrina recovery and embrace a return to school that is informed by, and not blind to, the collective trauma our students and colleagues have experienced. We recommend that all schools take the following actions and that all families and advocates urge them to do so:
- Reach out to families and students and ask them how they are doing—utilize one-on-one video chats or optimize in-person time to build a personal connection. Find out how COVID has impacted them and establish a good line of communication, especially if you are building a relationship with new students and their families, and doubly so if you are starting the school year virtually. Students will struggle to ask for help when there is no trust relationship or established class culture with their teachers, especially in distance learning. This sounds simple, but so often it gets overlooked in the crush of back-to-school preparations.
- Strengthen (or start!) implementation of evidenced-based practices like Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS) and social-emotional curricula. Reflect on how you were doing before the shutdown, assess your weaknesses, and create a game plan to improve your schoolwide implementation this year. Effective, improved MTSS implementation will generate data-driven, appropriate referrals for possible special education eligibility.
- Amidst the collective pressure to close COVID-related learning gaps, do not overlook or set aside the thoughtful planning and coordination required to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities. Utilize resources like the Educating All Learners Alliance to identify effective ways to tailor and individualize instruction (especially distance learning) to accommodate the needs of diverse learners.
- Implement a behavioral health universal screening tool (like the Strengths & Difficulties Questionnaire) at an appropriate time when teachers have had 4-6 weeks of relationship building with their students to assess the needs of all students in the building or start a pilot by screening one or two grades of students. Utilize your MTSS and special education teams to review screening results and create a plan of action to respond, both school-wide and with individual students.
- Build up your network of outside partnerships with community organizations and behavioral health providers. Contact your district or neighboring schools to find out who they partner with. Utilize these partnerships to make effective referrals for students in need. Brainstorm how you can integrate these partnerships for school-based services.
- Put students at the center of the school’s instructional day and school staffing plans. Be mindful of long instructional blocks that will be difficult for students to sit through, especially in the wake of significant trauma. Whenever possible, maximize opportunities for recreation, and consider implementing an official recreational therapy program. Don’t forget about the needs of teachers and staff—provide space for staff reflection.
Learning from the opportunities we missed post-Katrina, we believe that meaningful implementation of these actions will mitigate the long-lasting effects of this pandemic, setting up our students, educators, and communities for a more successful recovery and return to school.
Jennifer Coco is Local Policy Manager with the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools; based in New Orleans, she has spent the last decade as an attorney and advocate for public school students throughout New Orleans and Louisiana, including serving as class counsel on the New Orleans special education consent decree.
Aqua Stovall is the founding Executive Director of the Special Education Leader Fellowship, a New Orleans-based non-profit created to meet the need for high-quality special education programming in schools, and is an experienced educator, leader, and principal of schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, Georgia, and New Jersey.
Liz Marcell Williams is the founding CEO of the Center for Resilience, the sole local therapeutic day program for children with emotional health and trauma-related needs, and an experienced special education teacher and leader in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans schools. She has taught and worked as a teacher coach in Texas, Massachusetts, and Louisiana.
Coco, Stovall, and Marcell Williams are members of the New Orleans Special Education Consortium, through which we collectively improve outcomes for students with disabilities through partnerships and programming.