Even for a trauma-informed school, COVID is a tough assignment
Students in Christina Ogle’s first grade class at Ann Visgar Elementary School in River Rouge begin their day by checking in with their feelings and posting them on color-coded cards. But a few weeks into the school year, the routine hasn’t quite set in yet.
Students are supposed to post the color that matches their mood to clips, using the green card if they’re happy, yellow if they’re feeling anxious or silly, red if they’re mad, and blue if they’re feeling, well, blue.
The River Rouge school district has taken a trauma-informed approach to academics, and asking students to assess their emotions is one part of that, especially since the school re-opened after a year of hybrid and remote learning. This approach, paired with experience addressing the academic “slide” that high-poverty students tend to experience year after year, has led district leaders to feel equipped to handle the socio-emotional distress and missed learning posed by the pandemic. But those challenges presented formidable barriers to achievement before the added feat of keeping students, many of whom are still too young to receive a vaccine, from contracting a virus that sent 30,000 children to hospitals in this country last month alone.
That reality is not lost on Ogle, who frequently punctuates her sentences with a directive to a student to pull their mask up. She is focused on making sure students are as socially distanced as possible, and makes sure they sanitize their hands before lunch.
Those tasks take up mental energy that goes beyond her usual mandate to keep 20-odd 5- and 6-year-olds engaged. Ogle has more than two decades of teaching experience. On the Monday of my visit to her bright classroom, she focused on her work — in part, in an effort to keep herself from worrying about her brother, who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 over the weekend. He wasn’t vaccinated, and Ogle said that was a “sore point” for her, as someone who believes in the vaccine.
“We're just going to keep hope, and that's all I can do, not dread on it, because that'll make me sick to my stomach,” she said. “So I just teach and be at the moment with the kids.”
Many of her students, however, seem to be fixated on what it means to be sick. As a student named Ma’kenzie unpacked yogurt and chips from her lunch bag, she told her friend Bailey about how she recently gotten sick, only to have her friend counter with, “I’m sick right now.”
“I been sick and I think I got sicker because I was coughing more harder, because I touched the poison tree,” Ma’kenzie pressed on, with her story taking a sort of fairy tale turn. “But I feel better, so that wasn’t a poison tree.”
Another student took up the same refrain. “I’m sick,” she said, sliding back her chair. When asked what was wrong, she grabbed her belly. “I’ve been eating too much food!”
“We get a lot of that,” said Nichole German, the principal of Ann Visgar Elementary. “We get a lot of that from our students. We get a lot of it from our teachers because our teachers are concerned, and we get a lot of students coming to school and you can tell they're physically not doing well.”
Just that morning a mother tried to get two boys back into their classrooms after they were sent home sick the day before, since she didn’t have child care for them. She admitted that they were still coughing, but she had negative COVID test results to prove they weren’t, at least, sick with the virus.
German’s staff has to make decisions about which students to keep in school and which to send home every day.
“It's a scary moment,” she admitted, “but it's our job to flatten that fear.”
The school’s hallways are decked out in safari decor, with a papier-mache zebra outside the front office and balloon palm trees through the hall. The school year kicked off with a “wild about learning” theme, and River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman says part of his approach is to focus on developing a love of learning instead of trying to meet achievement benchmarks.
“This is a new normal that we're working from,” he said. “So whatever our data sets were prior to COVID, we're throwing them out because it's the data that we have now that tells us where do you meet children at and then how do you provide them opportunities for learning.”
The district has allocated some of the funding it received through the American Rescue Plan Act to offer more hands-on learning courses, including one on fashion where a group of third grade students are learning the parts of a sewing machine.
Siennda said she’s never seen a sewing machine before, but she already has a plan for her first project.
“I want to make some slippers for my little baby with a Nike sign on it,” she said with such exuberance that the clear and white beads at the bottom of her braids bounce against each other.
Her little baby is actually her little cousin, who she said sometimes crawled over her while she was trying to do virtual lessons last year, but then, her mind races to a bigger problem. “My grandma’s house had burned down and the computer was still in there,” Siennda said.
When asked if she’s happy to be back in a school teeming with other students, she looked out the window at a graying sky and said she wished she was home so she could watch videos on her phone and sleep.
But after thinking about it for a minute, she has a different response. “Sometimes I like school and sometimes don't.” Then, in a flash, she pulls down her mask to reveal a toothy grin. “But I really hope my teeth grow in.”