Howard Webster’s third graders had “first-day jitters” on Sept. 18. But the first day of school had been nearly a month earlier.
Gateway Environmental K-8 Learning Center in Homestead was closed for seven school days because of Hurricane Irma, as were most other schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
“With the kids being out so long, it's like starting school all over again,” Webster said during an after-school event shortly after the storm.
In Monroe County, the Keys, students missed as many as 18 days. And children arriving in Florida from Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands are losing months of education. A “loss” is exactly how educators describe interruptions from school, especially when they involve traumatic experiences.
But experts and educators say it’s possible for students to catch up. Here’s some advice for parents on how to help them:
Help them reestablish a routine.
Getting kids back to school is half the battle. School schedules provide stability and normality for students, which helps them focus on their classes, said Matthew Boulay, founder and chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association.
His nonprofit researches how to mitigate the disruptive effects of summer breaks on achievement. Any break from school can be harmful, though, especially if it’s related to a traumatic experience. Boulay knows that first hand. He was teaching fourth grade in Manhattan when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened.
“Getting back into a routine can often be helpful, and school provides a routine. School provides a safe place,” he said.
Deal with their emotional needs first.
When schools reopened in the Keys in late September and early October, academics weren’t at the forefront of educators’ minds there.
“All of our efforts so far have been in trying to find out how the children are,” Theresa Axford, executive director of teaching and learning for the Monroe County school district, said early this month.
Principals are “trying in every way possible to keep things upbeat,” Axford said. “But the children are traumatized, and so is the staff.”
She said the district did a “needs assessment” of students to find out what their personal situations were and whether they might need counseling.
Parents can offer a sympathetic ear, too.
“Talking in age-appropriate ways about what's happened, giving children an opportunity to express their fears and concerns and anxieties, is important,” Boulay said.
Share your own experiences about living through hurricanes with them.
When the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew passed earlier this year, Webster’s students in Homestead wanted to know why people talk so much about the 1992 storm.
“I said, ‘Go home and talk to mom and dad,’ ” Webster said.
Many did, he said, and learned from their parents what living through a hurricane is like. He said that helped calm their anxieties when Irma approached.
“Now they see it firsthand, what a hurricane, and a strong hurricane, can do to the community,” he said.
Help them process their feelings through age-appropriate educational activities.
Boulay suggests talking about community events and reading the newspaper with older children. It’s educational because it helps kids obtain a broader context for how storms impact the community. But it also provides a chance for dialogue between parents and children about their own concerns about the storm and the challenges of recovery.
“It's important to treat kids as kids. Let them be the natural learners that they are,” he said. “Feed their curiosity. They'll have lots of questions.”
Check in with their teachers about how they’re doing.
Axford said administrators and teachers in the Keys plan to move forward with a new curriculum and review what students might not remember as they go. They will then give extra help to students who may need it, including before and after school.
Parents may want to ask teachers what they can do at home to help their children catch up, without overwhelming or overloading them.
Also, remember teachers may be struggling themselves.
Shortly after school reopened in the Keys, Axford said she spoke with a principal who had 10 teachers crying in her office one day because of their own difficult personal circumstances.
“They don't mean to be crying. They want to be doing everything that they can,” Axford said. “But the ultimate reality of their situation keeps coming up.”
Be prepared that they may need reassurance from time to time.
Eugene Provenzo, a retired education professor from the University of Miami, wrote a book about how schools recovered after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
He said students continued to express storm-related stress and anxiety long after the storm had passed.
“The wind would come up four or five months later and the kids would all get really, really upset,” he said.
“The teachers would talk about having to calm them down and drop whatever it was that they were particularly doing and, you know, try to help the kids take in a deep breath and know that the storm isn’t coming, you'll be OK,” he said.
This may not be the case for students whose experiences with Irma were relatively mild. But for kids who lost their homes or had a tough time otherwise, adults may have to be a bit more sensitive to their emotional needs for a while.