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After the hurricane: Time to 'focus on the good things' at school

Principal Steve Williams, foreground, takes a selfie with the staff and faculty of Wiregrass Elementary in Pasco County. The group gathered on campus Friday to prepare the school for Monday's reopening. Kindergarten teacher Maritere Garcia said that, after Hurricane Irma, she wants to help her students get back to normal. "I'll be ready to talk about ways we can help and focus on the good things," she said.

Principal Steve Williams, foreground, takes a selfie with the staff and faculty of Wiregrass Elementary in Pasco County. The group gathered on campus Friday to prepare the school for Monday's reopening. Kindergarten teacher Maritere Garcia said that, after Hurricane Irma, she wants to help her students get back to normal. "I'll be ready to talk about ways we can help and focus on the good things," she said.
Published Sep. 15, 2017

Maritere Garcia has spent a lot of time thinking about the day her kindergartners return to Wiregrass Elementary School in Wesley Chapel.

She knows the youngsters have experienced potentially traumatic times during and after Hurricane Irma. She saw photos of some sleeping in closets, knows that they might not have power at home, or worse.

"I can't wait to be back to normal," Garcia said.

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE EXPERTS:

Gradebook podcast: What should school be like after Hurricane Irma?

Gradebook podcast: Resuming school after Irma — another expert's advice

That normalcy might not arrive on the first day students across the Tampa Bay area head back to school on Monday after an anxiety-fueled week away.

So Garcia has prepared some ideas to let the children express themselves about the storm, without generating more worries.

She will ask them to draw pictures and write stories about what they saw and learned during Irma, not so much about destruction and catastrophe, but about their observations and their ideas how to aid others who suffered more severely.

"All positive," Garcia said. "I'll be ready to talk about ways we can help and focus on the good things."

Dealing with major natural disasters can undermine children's sense of security. The way adults react can influence coping.

One thing the schools should not do is pretend Irma never happened, said Joy Osofsky of the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, who played a key role after Hurricane Katrina in efforts to address children's trauma through schools.

"One of the things that people think about is, if we don't talk about it and we don't think about it and we just get back to the routine the way it was before, then everything will be okay," Osofsky said. "That just isn't the case."

Everyone needs to have an opportunity to talk about what happened to them, as a way of settling back into the regularity that school brings to children and community, she said. That includes teachers, who also felt the impact of the storm.

Such sharing is part of principal Stan Mykita's return plan at Wesley Chapel Elementary.

He said he will encourage teachers to let students know that they also heard the howling wind, sweated through the power outages and otherwise endured Irma. It's not to seek sympathy, he said.

It's a point of connection, a place to begin conversation.

"It's just letting them know they're not the only ones going through this," Mykita said.

As schools work to get back to the business of teaching and learning, they should pace themselves, said Patti Ezell, a Louisiana-based mental health professional who worked with schools after Katrina and Rita.

They might want to hold off on such things as testing and homework, Ezell suggested, until most everyone can get on an even keel.

"Everybody, even those who have the least amount of damage, can have other issues going on," she said. "You don't want to get stuck and bogged down, but at the same time you don't want to push and go too fast."

Latoya Jordan, principal at Lacoochee Elementary in eastern Pasco County, said she agreed it would take time to make sure classes can get back up to speed.

Teachers need to make sure they review the content they left off with, for instance, as no one anticipated being away so long. She expected, though, that things would return to business as usual fairly quickly, "but keeping in mind the basics" that students, parents and staff might require.

HELPFUL RESOURCES:

Helping Children After a Natural Disaster: Information for Parents and Teachers

Terrorism and Disaster Coalition for Child and Family Resilience

Her already distressed community regularly has food, water, clothing and other needs it deals with daily. Irma simply added another complicating layer.

"The biggest part is just being understanding," Jordan said. "They know if they need us, we're here — not just for the kids, but for the community in general."

The experts pointed out that educators must pay attention to their own needs, as well.

Some teachers still cannot get home from their evacuation. Others can't get out of their homes. They feel the effects too.

"We're trying to take care of each other now," said Wesley Chapel Elementary fourth-grade teacher Laurie Bazick.

Bazick's teaching team has been helping each other by providing such things as power to charge up devices to those who haven't had their homes turned on yet. They are sharing their own sets of stories, while also conferring about what they expect from the students they teach together.

If they don't take care of their own needs, Bazick said, teachers will find it more difficult to tend to their classes. And they know that it will take some time to work through the many issues that could pop up once students return.

""It will be kind of a day by day as far as meeting their needs, while also slowly getting back into the regular curriculum," Bazick said. "We can't really make much progress unless we meet those needs first."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.