Youngsters Karis, Creighton and Cortland Cooper lounged in their living room on a hot summer day watching Lego Star Wars — with photos of their late grandfather and great-grandmother lining the shelves just to the side of the flatscreen.
The kids lost those grandparents to COVID-19 along with their great-aunt and great-uncle — all within three months.
They weren’t able to visit sick relatives in the hospital before they passed. The last conversations with their grandfather — whom they normally saw at least twice a week— were over the phone.
“I’m a single parent so for my kids, my dad was a father figure to them,” said Shannon Cooper, the siblings’ mom.
Children nationwide are still struggling with grief after losing close family members during the pandemic. Many families are reaching out to their children’s schools and local organizations for help.
Some North Texas districts have hired crisis counselors or formed partnerships with grief resources in the community, while others have come up with innovative ways to support students on campus.
More than 14,000 Texas children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19 in the first 15 months of the pandemic alone. They also watched parents lose jobs and struggle financially, experienced food insecurity, housing instability or fell behind in school because of disruptions.
Such stressors can make it difficult for kids long term. Adverse childhood experiences are linked to mental health problems, lower self-esteem, sexual risk behaviors, increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence and shorter schooling, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“And we talk about grief. Grief is — it’s complicated,” said Jessica Gomez, a doctor of psychology and executive director at the Momentous Institute. “It’s not just the loss of someone, but there have been so many losses in the past two years.”
Research shows that many of the challenges children faced when COVID-19 hit can have short- and long-term consequences on their mental well-being. Children are more anxious, less connected and more likely to have experienced trauma than they were before the pandemic, according to a report from Texans Care for Children.
About 65% of public schools in the South, including Texas, reported an increase in students seeking mental health services from their districts since the start of the pandemic, according to a federal survey taken in April.
Teachers and counselors will once again be on the front lines in addressing kids’ grief this school year. They are often the first to recognize when a child’s behavior changes or if a student has trouble learning and interacting with others.
Meanwhile, educators must manage their own stresses as well as their students’, Gomez said.
“We have an entire system that’s absolutely exhausted,” she said.
Overwhelmed by loss
On Christmas Eve in 2020, just a few of the Cooper family elders gathered in Arlington for dinner instead of the traditional festivities that usually topped 60 relatives. They tried to be safe about the pandemic.
The next day, a few more got together for the annual Christmas Day breakfast. By the weekend of Jan. 5, those who gathered over the holiday had tested positive for COVID-19, and seven were hospitalized.
Three died before the end of the month. Tom Walker — the Cooper kids’ grandfather — died on March 1. Soon afterward, the children started having sudden “meltdowns” and trouble sleeping.
At times, they’d cling to their mother, worried about losing her too, especially after she was weakened during a bout with COVID-19. She wasn’t sure what to do.
“My dad was the person that was really good with talking to them,” Cooper said. “Definitely, if he was around, he made them feel very secure.”
School teachers and counselors at her children’s previous school in Joshua provided check-ins, but Cooper said they needed more.
She took her three kids to ChristianWorks for Children, a nonprofit that provides counseling and other family services in the North Texas area.
“There was a huge, huge change,” Cooper said. They saw other kids going through similar challenges, learned how to express their feelings and remembered happy memories about their family members lost.
While Cooper sought out ChristianWorks on her own, it receives most of its referrals from schools, noted Rob Pine, chief advancement officer at the nonprofit.
When a child is referred to ChristianWorks by a school within a district they are partnered with, the child receives services free of charge.
A district typically pays for a certain amount of hours each year from the nonprofit. Pine said that since the pandemic, the hours get used up faster as more children need help.
ChristianWorks also provides support for the caregivers of children working through a loss.
“In our group, they’ll tell us what they’re learning, and we can piggyback off that,” Cooper said.
Crowley, like many districts, hired additional staff to help students bounce back academically and emotionally.
That included two crisis counselors who travel to various campuses as needed and additional educators who are focused on the social and emotional well-being of students.
“Our kids are here seven hours a day, and if we can take some time throughout the day to give them that support, it definitely will help them,” said Shana Pink, a counselor for Crowley ISD.
Meanwhile, the district embedded more social and emotional aspects into lessons through a program focused on building character and created a new position — director of community engagement — to help families access resources.
The district also expanded their partnership with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization that provides on-site social workers for schools.
Fort Worth also leaned into its partnership with Communities in Schools as well as additional organizations, including ChristianWorks and The Art Station. The district connects students with them through a handful of family resource centers across FWISD.
Nearly 200 students dealing with loss were helped through those centers, said Ottis Goodwin, director of family and community resources with FWISD.
“The impact of loss can impact academic performance,” Goodwin said. “Students may struggle to keep the same level of focus, have an increase in absences and disengage from activities and peers. Connecting them into experienced providers can help mitigate some of the impact.”
Zurisadai Benitez, the coordinator and clinician at the district’s Riverside Family Resource Center, said schools need to brace for more need.
“We have to talk about, in the coming school year, how this might be coming up more frequently ... because maybe (last year) kids weren’t ready to talk about their loss, but they are now,” Benitez said.
Getting help faster
Thousands of Texas children are on waitlists for help.
Even before the pandemic, growing demand for mental health and grief support for students had Dallas-area school districts turning to outside nonprofits for help, such as ChristianWorks and Mind Above Matter.
From April 2021 to March 2022, Texas had 2,656 children on waiting lists for mental health services provided through the state’s Youth Empowerment Services Waiver Program, a Medicaid program.
But for kids at schools that partner with community resources, such services cut down waiting times and are often free of charge.
Though Mind Above Matter started partnering with school districts four years ago, the pandemic “amplified” the need for them, said Whitney Dixon, vice president of growth and development at Mind Above Matter. The organization partners with about half a dozen Tarrant County-area districts, including Keller, Grapevine-Colleyville, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Fort Worth.
“COVID has flipped the lid off of the need for mental health services, especially in schools,” Dixon said. “Schools have been more receptive to bringing in outside services to help them since everybody is so stretched thin, and they’re tapped out on their resources.”
Camille Matthews is a social worker at a local counseling center who helps students in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD. She’s seen the strain firsthand.
She knows of at least five students at a middle school who lost a parent to the pandemic. One student became a parent to four siblings after their mom died from COVID-19. Another student stopped showing up at school because she was home taking care of her parents who were sick with COVID-19.
Some students were spending more time in her office than they were in the classroom.
“It was horrible,” Matthews said.
Educators worry about ongoing and increased need as the pandemic continues. But without adequate funding, it may be difficult to accommodate.
The Texas Legislature passed comprehensive student mental health legislation in 2019. But school districts have struggled to implement and sustain the strategies because of costs, according to a June report from Texans Care for Children.
For example, districts receive school safety funding from the state that’s about $10 per student, and intended to help pay for building security and school counselors, the report noted.
Still, the need is growing and evermore important to address, advocates say.
“Grief is a journey. It’s a lifelong journey,” Dixon said. “And so I don’t see the need for mental health services going away, if anything, I see the need continuing and growing.”
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