Students Need More Support From Schools When a Caregiver Dies

More than 211,000 children and teenagers have lost their primary caregivers due to COVID-19, and experts argue that schools need long-term supports to keep those students on track academically and emotionally.

The New York Life Foundation, which tracks child bereavement in five-year cycles, found that after the first year of the pandemic, the number of children who lost a parent before age 18 jumped from 1 in 14 to 1 in 13.

A international study published last week in the journal JAMA Open finds that losing a parent was associated with lower grades in school, even after accounting for other potentially negative issues such as family poverty. The researchers used 25 years of sibling data from Sweden to compare grades for siblings whose caregivers died before or after they reached the end of their compulsory schooling age.

“Schools do think about the short-term things like, how do I welcome the child back to the class; how do I show that the other children and myself are supportive,” said Irwin Sandler, a psychologist who studies supports after caregiver loss at the REACH Institute in the Arizona State University Tempe, and wrote a commentary accompanying the JAMA study. “But the domain of long-term support is a somewhat more difficult issue.”

That’s because, although the death of any family or friend can be traumatic, students who lose a caregiver are at risk of a “cascade” of trauma, according to Dan Treglia, associate professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Losing a parent could also mean losing financial stability, having to move to a different school or home, and experiencing the stress and grief of their remaining family.

“And so, suddenly, you have yet another disruption,” Treglia said. “They experience social isolation as they’re moving away from family and friends and their community.”

Catherine Jaynes, senior director of the COVID Collaborative, which tracks caregiver loss during the pandemic, said there is no widespread system for identifying children who have lost a caregiver, and social distancing during the pandemic has limited many of the informal ways schools find that out. “Funerals and a lot of faith-based rituals have not been able to be completed,” Jaynes said. “And now we’re hearing, there’s some stigma about those individuals that have died … so there might be an inclination to not let folks know.”

Students of color at risk

“It is important to note that racial disparities in COVID caregiver loss are even larger than the disparities in nonwhite populations when they’re dying from COVID-19,” Treglia said.

People of color have died from the coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates and at younger ages than their white peers, which means they’re more likely to have had children still living at home. Moreover, children of color are more likely to live in a multigenerational household, in which grandparents play larger caregiving roles, and in multifamily households.

While COVID-19 has caused a sudden spike of caregiver deaths, students also regularly lose parents to cancer and other illnesses, military service, and the ongoing gun violence and opioid crises, among others, Jaynes noted. “Across the age spectrum, we know the importance of having a support system for that child to include the home, the school, the community faith-based organizations … as they go through their grief process.”

The Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative, supported by the New York Life Foundation, provides grants and training for a network of schools and districts around the country to develop clearer crisis and bereavement plans and more-holistic supports for students.

Here are some recommendations from experts on how schools can support grieving students:

  • Identify students systemically. Teachers are the “eyes and ears” for finding the children and teens in trouble and providing the first line of help, said Treglia, but they need training in identifying students. Jaynes and Maria Collins of the New York Life Foundation also call for adding a question on family loss to standard school registration forms to ensure more students are found and making that information part of a child’s permanent record if they change schools or districts.
  • Provide supports beyond grief. Schools should consider long-term mentoring and academic tutoring in addition to counseling and other mental health supports, Jaynes advised.
  • Consider the whole family. Sandler noted that support from surviving caregivers is the most important factor in a child’s resilience after a caregiver’s loss. “You have to remember the surviving caregivers are grieving, too. So they’re very busy, they have a lot on their plate, both practically and emotionally,” he said. “Direct outreach from the school can be helpful.”
  • Make sure the student doesn’t feel alone. Sandler recommended schools connect students to others who have lost family members.

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