Students at Briya Public Charter School
Students at Briya Public Charter School Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Shortly before starting in-person classes at a D.C. public school more than three weeks ago, a 6-year-old girl confided in her mother about the monster that had been haunting her. She fears her family members would die from the virus and that it would be all her fault. The girl lives in a multigenerational household with her younger brother and grandparents. She is terrified that she could bring the virus home with her from school.

“What a heavy load to bear for someone so young,” Dr. Stacy Cary-Thompson, a D.C.-based pediatrician, says via email. “And what’s worse is that her concern is valid. It’s not like the fears and anxieties that kids hold about the boogeyman or monsters under the bed that we as parents can easily calm and reassure that everything will be alright. The truth is, we don’t know if they will be alright, and we have those same fears.” 

Cary-Thompson first learned of the 6-year-old’s fears through the advocacy work she does alongside a group of parents, teachers, and community members known as DC Families for COVID-Safer Schools.

The young girl’s anxiety, unlike monsters in a closet, exists in the daylight hours during school. Unlike other fears, a soothing word wouldn’t make the monster any less real. Its shape manifests in very real numbers. Thousands of students and teachers in the D.C. area have quarantined less than a month into the public school year due to potential exposure to COVID-19. Many more positive COVID cases could come out of classrooms before the mayor’s mandate that all school staff to get fully vaxxed by Nov. 1 takes effect. 

Children under 12, Cary-Thompson points out, often see family members getting the vaccine and are aware that they don’t have the same protection and “have not yet been included in the equation.” These kids understand that they are more vulnerable and more likely to transmit the virus to others at home and in large group settings like in-person classes, she says. It could be at least until Halloween before children ages 5 to 11 get vaccinated once they become eligible for vaccines.

Students, parents, and local officials raised several of the issues underlying the young girl’s fear during a D.C. Council roundtable Tuesday. The lack of virtual learning options and conditions inside school buildings made Ward 7 State Board of Education Rep. Eboni-Rose Thompson “really, really feel unsafe.” Thompson, who in the first few weeks of DCPS reopening surveyed residents about their attitudes around school safety, found that, of the 200 respondents, 72 percent feel uncomfortable or worse about the DCPS situation, she testified.

During the roundtable, witnesses testified about a lack of social distancing rules in place (DCPS only has guidelines for students to maintain a distance of three feet when possible). They said not all school buildings had adequate HVAC or filtration systems at the start of school. And they stressed that DCPS hasn’t provided high-quality non-medical grade masks like KN95 for students: Despite doctors’ recommendations and no evidence that such masks were not made to be worn throughout the day, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn defended the city’s decision not to invest in the most protective masks in a Council call late last month. He said they are “not designed to be, you know, worn by the average person for multiple hours … we want students to wear a mask that they will tolerate.” 

It’s also tough for children and adults not to see monsters lurking about when families and teachers are kept in the dark about staff vaccination levels and classroom-level data around potential COVID exposure or positive cases in real time, says Cary-Thompson.

So what are the doctor’s orders for adults hoping to manage their little ones’ mental health?

Cary-Thompson says parents should watch for changes in their kids’ habits and behavior that could indicate the need to seek help. Severe anger, changes in sleeping or eating habits, a lack of pleasure from activities they typically enjoy, and having a hard time with tasks that used to be easy are antenna-raisers. Comments wishing that they are no longer alive are particularly concerning. All are signs that a child may benefit from therapy from a mental health professional. At the very least, Cary-Thompson says parents should seek evaluation from a trusted medical provider.

For teachers and school administrators to do their part in children’s mental health, Alexis Taylor, a teacher and contributing writer for the Baltimore Afro American who has reported on education wellness initiatives like yoga for youth, says schools should practice or expand the type of trauma-informed care Baltimore city schools have done for years. In a recent “Word in Black” roundtable discussion on virtual education, she highlighted simple steps like incorporating mindfulness moments and breathing techniques in the classroom. 

Cary-Thompson stresses the importance of mindfulness with kids at home as well: “There’s something really special when we teach our kids about that, especially with this generation, where there’s so much instant gratification …to slow down, to sit back, and to be OK and quiet,” she says.

Parents can also model vulnerability by confiding in their kids about their own struggle to navigate stress and making their relationship a safe space to talk or not talk.

“I think there’s a huge benefit … for them to know that it’s okay to have emotions that feel uncomfortable,” she says.

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This post has been updated to reflect that Dr. Stacy Cary-Thompson does not work exclusively at emergency rooms. A previous post also incorrectly stated that Dr. Cary-Thompson learned about the 6-year-old student at her parent group; this version has been updated to reflect that she had heard of the girl’s worries from another group in which she is involved, the DC Families for COVID-Safer Schools.

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