Thousands of kids have lost loved ones to COVID. Are schools prepared to help them?

By: - April 16, 2021 4:15 am

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The last year was tough for Latonya Peterson, a mom and grandmother from Detroit, and her family, as they dealt with three deaths in their “close-knit” clan throughout the pandemic. 

Peterson lives with her three children, NaQuanda, 22, William, 18, and Joshua, 15, and her two grandchildren, Patrick, 15, and Alexander, 5, who are all going to school while learning how to cope with the loss of their loved ones from COVID-19.

Alexander, who’s in kindergarten, has had a particularly tough time grieving the loss of two of his uncles and a cousin. 

Latonya Peterson with her three children, NaQuanda, William and Joshua, and her two grandchildren, Patrick and Alexander.

“When we went to the funeral, he was like, Why didn’t I hug him back? Why didn’t he wake up? I mean, how do you explain death to a 5-year-old?” Peterson said. 

During the pandemic, there’s been a lot of focus on students, but policymakers have primarily stressed schools’ reopening plans, standardized tests and sports seasons. But one issue that has largely taken a backseat is the effect that grief has had on young Michiganders.

In Michigan, more than 16,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID-19 — many of whom were the grandparents, parents, siblings and friends of Michigan students who have had to process those losses amid all the other upheavals during the pandemic.

Along with the thousands of lives lost in Michigan, there are also 738,000 people in the state who have contracted the virus, adding to the anxiety. 

Before COVID hit, a 2018 study done by Judi’s House, a Denver-based nonprofit centered around supporting grieving children and families, found that 1 in 13 Michigan children would experience the loss of a parent or sibling before age 18.  

The pandemic has likely worsened this statistic, as well as changed the grieving process around loss.

A new study done by sociologists across North America found that an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent to COVID-19, which could be more than a 20% increase of child bereavement than before the pandemic. 

The study also found that Black children have been disproportionately affected, making up about 14% of the children in the United States, but 20% of the children who lost a parent to COVID-19. 

“There have been a lot of losses this year. If someone dies from COVID, even that experience of saying goodbye to them and that closure is really different, not being able to necessarily always have a funeral or have it in the way that you want to have it. That changes for people,” said Lori Hartman, a school counselor at Whitehall Middle School and the middle school representative on the Michigan School Counselors Association board. 

The grieving process also looks different during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, Michigan funerals were limited to 10 people and families were Zooming into the ceremonies or choosing to opt-out of hosting them altogether. Now, funerals are still limited to 25 attendees.

Peterson said Alexander feels less comfortable now around people when they’re sleeping because of his experience at the funerals. 

“I noticed when people are sleeping, he tends to shy away and not want to be around them when they’re still, you know, because I just believe it’s the image of him seeing our loved ones in caskets that got him kinda scared,” Peterson said. 

Hartman said that younger kids have a more difficult time expressing grief and sadness, so sometimes that shows up in behavioral changes or changes in their performance at school. 

“With our students, the younger they are, the more difficult it is for them to have concrete strategies already in place to manage stress,” Hartman said. “And so sometimes, those things manifest themselves as behaviors that you don’t necessarily want to see. Sometimes a kid that’s acting out is trying to tell you that they’re struggling with something and doesn’t have a way to either verbalize it or doesn’t have a strategy to use.”

Coping mechanisms vary based on the age of the individual, the support system they have around them and the relationship they had with the lost loved one. 

“It feels like everyone’s grieving in some way, shape or form right now. And kids, of course, have the worst of it, because they’re not as developed and mature enough to handle these stressors,” said Ann Judson, a clinical services manager for HealthWest youth programs in Muskegon. 

Infants and toddlers, who aren’t able to vocalize their grief, express it through a change in eating habits and sleeping habits. Grief can show up in kids’ play as they begin to try to understand the concept of death, Judson said.

“[Teenagers] basically have an adult understanding of death without the maturity and all of the life experiences and resilience that’s built up to handle it in the same way an adult does, Judson said. “They have a really hard task, because they understand it on such a deep level. And yet, they’re still trying to adult.”

Many teenagers will pull away from their family unit when they’re grieving and find support through friends or adults at school.

“What’s so hard, I think, for teens is that they’re trying so hard to be independent and not rely on their parents and not go to them for help,” Judson said. “And so there’s this conflict between like, wow, I really need my people right now and then trying to pull away from my people and be my own person. And so I think they kind of can feel really stuck in that way. And I think teens can especially feel really isolated when something like that happens because of where they’re at developmentally.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District student at Ronald Brown Academy | Ken Coleman photo

State leaders work to support student mental health

Many state leaders have talked about students’ mental health and emotional needs during the pandemic. And there has been some action.

In February, state Rep. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield Twp.) introduced House Bill 4156 that would require school districts to staff one counselor for every 450 students in the district. The bill was referred to the House Education Committee and hasn’t seen any action since. 

Our students’ mental health must be made a higher priority,” said Brabec. “As a clinical psychologist, I recognize the importance of meeting the mental health needs of students in Michigan. Students need resources available to them that can help lower the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in our younger students and teens. Having more school counselors available is a great first step a school can take.”

This has been an issue before the pandemic. During the 2018-19 school year, Michigan had the second worst school counselor-to-student ratio in the nation, only behind Arizona, with one counselor for every 691 students.  

The American School Counselor Association recommends states have 1counselor for every 250 students.

As someone who is the only counselor for a school building with about 480 students, “anything that comes out of this in terms of school counseling would be long overdue probably,” said Hartman. 

House Education Committee Chair Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.), a former public school teacher, did not comment on why the bill hasn’t been taken up, but said that she is “engaged in ongoing conversations with the [MSCA], Michigan Social Worker Association and Michigan School Psychologist Association about this matter.”

She has been an advocate for increasing social and emotional support systems in schools prior to the pandemic.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger

In a July 2019 Detroit News opinion piece, Hornberger wrote: “Our students need more mental health support in school. We need to ensure schools have the resources to provide support on an ongoing basis. When I started teaching my school district had numerous counselors, social workers and school psychologists. By the time I left education to join the legislature that support was very limited, at a time when students and families needed it most.”

Many legislative Republicans have cited students’ mental health as a reason why schools should resume in-person learning. Hornberger has been a vocal advocate for reopening school buildings and allowing students to participate in school sports, saying in June 2020 that in-person learning is important “for growth and stability and mental health.” 

A December 2020 study done by Michigan State University found that 30% of quarantined children in Michigan met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and teens experiencing social isolation are twice as likely to attempt suicide. 

These statistics were a large part of Republicans’ arguments for reopening schools, noting that social interaction is important for students’ well-being.

While campaigning in 2018 before the COVID crisis, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said there must be more funding for additional social workers and counselors in schools. 

The current 2021 budget includes $5.6 million to increase the number of mental health counselors in schools.

In her 2022 budget proposal, Whitmer included $250 million in one-time supplemental funding for research-based best practices to support student academic recovery, physical and mental health and post-secondary readiness and transition.

This month, Whitmer announced she is collaborating with the National Governors Association (NGA) on strategies for equitably meeting the social-emotional needs of students and families during and beyond COVID-19. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all Michiganders, especially our young people. As we continue to reopen school buildings and vaccinate more people every day, we need a comprehensive recovery plan to support students’ academic and social emotional needs,” Whitmer said. 

The importance of family

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of students’ mental health. In just over a year, some of the most traumatic experiences a young person could live through have become even more common, such as death, illness, homelessness and financial struggles in the family.

“I think that when a kid has a concern that’s more major, it seems like it has several more complex layers to it than in the past. Maybe their family is also struggling with homelessness or poverty or loss of a job or kids being worried about the parents and family being OK. That seems like it’s been more complex this year,” Hartman said. 

During the 2019-20 school year, which is the latest data available, about 33,000 K-12 students in Michigan experienced homelessness, according to data reported by the state. A 2020 study done by University of Michigan Poverty Solutions found that about 18% of Michigan children are living below the poverty line.

The MSU study noted earlier also found that the unemployment rates Michigan was seeing at the height of the pandemic when many businesses were shut down could have led to more children experiencing child neglect or abuse, adding to the levels of stress students were dealing with this past year.

According to the study, a 1% increase in parental unemployment predicts a 4.3% increase in child abuse and neglect, and the study predicted a 78% rise in child abuse and neglect in Michigan based on the record-high unemployment rates.

The study also noted that many students have been separated from vital mental health support systems, like teachers, counselors and some family members, during the pandemic.  

For Peterson’s 15-year old son, Joshua, a sophomore at Detroit Public Schools Community District, COVID-19 has shifted his perspective about the importance of family. 

“He tends to want to talk to everybody, every day, all day now,” Peterson said. “‘What if they died? What if I died?’ You know, they started to say, like ‘how do we know we aren’t going to die?’ Just asking a lot of questions about death, which I was told that is normal.”

All the children in Peterson’s household are learning virtually this year, which means that she and her 22-year-old daughter, NaQuanda, are the sole support systems to help these children cope with the loss of their loved ones. 

“I had to be strong for them, so I couldn’t explain things like death to them and let them see me break down, they would have just fallen apart,” Peterson said. “So it was very difficult, especially teaching my grandson about death and things like that. Because we are a close knit family, I had to call in my mother seeing, you know, she’s better at it than I was.”

Judson, who is a social worker for people ranging from infants to age 21, says that it’s important as the caretaker to be able to be resilient while they grieve, as well. 

“If that other adult in their life, or whoever resumes caring for them, is able to be resilient and is able to manage their grief and still remain present, [the child] is going to fare a lot better than if that parent is not functioning very well,” Judson said. “They’re gonna be more responsive to what’s happening in their immediate environment, rather than thinking about any abstract loss.”

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Light at the end of the tunnel?

Over the last few months, there has been a growing sense of optimism across Michigan as COVID vaccines become more available. As of April 5, vaccines are available to all Michigan residents 16 and older. 

As of Thursday, Michigan has administered more than 5.6 million vaccine doses, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services vaccine dashboard.

About 3.5 million Michigan residents have gotten their first dose of the vaccine, about 43% of the population, and 2.3 million Michiganders are completely vaccinated, about 29% of the population.

Aaron DuBose, a 16-year-old student and basketball player at Birmingham Groves High School, received his first dose this month after losing his grandfather to COVID-19. 

“It feels good to get the vaccine. COVID has been bad for everybody. It’s impacted my family personally,” DuBose said. “And especially being a student athlete, I want to do my part to stop the spread.”

But the pandemic isn’t over and there are new concerns over faster-spreading variants of the virus in Michigan. Statewide case rates have been rocketing, as well as hospitalizations and death rates. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives a COVID-19 update, Aug. 25, 2020 | Whitmer office photo

Last month, Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS chief deputy director for health), said the 10 to 19 age group experienced the largest increase of case rates, likely connected to outbreaks among sports teams. 

DHHS reported last week that the highest increases in case rates shifted to the 20 to 29 age group and the 30 to 39 age group, but children 0 to 9 and 10 to 19 were still seeing record high case rates.

The school year started with local school districts deciding what reopening plan worked best for their communities, considering the COVID-19 spread in their region, but due to a surge of cases in the fall and concern that things would get worse around the holidays, the state closed high schools and colleges for a month in mid-November. 

The state lifted the order, allowing for schools to open in mid-December. Since then, decisions to reopen schools or offer virtual classes or hybrid options have been left to local school districts. School sports, especially contact sports, were not allowed by the state until February and came with some restrictions, including a mask mandate and increased testing for athletes. 

Whitmer has urged high schools and both school-sponsored and non-school sponsored youth sports to suspend in-person activities and classes this week and next as COVID-19 cases spike among young people. 

It’s a reminder that an entire generation of kids has had their lives upended by the pandemic for more than a year and the ordeal is not yet over. And for the thousands of children who lost family members to the virus, it’s been a time of even more loss, social isolation and anxiety. Experts say additional social and emotional resources in schools and communities are key to helping these grieving students heal, but it likely will be a long process.

“Of course it’s going to impact us all for a long time, just like a world war or  9/11 impacted us for a long time. It has long-term effects in terms of mental health,” Hartman said. “It is my hope that as a community we are resilient enough and resourceful enough to get the needs met of our children.”


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.