Schools are doing all they can to keep everyone safe. But how do you prepare for the unthinkable?

School Safety Family

Jill Promoli and her family know grief well. They’ve dealt with the worst of it when Promoli’s two-year-old son Jude died of the flu four years ago.

Jude contracted Influenza B from his sister, Isla, who first got infected at her Mississauga school. Isla, who was five at the time, had only a minor fever and stayed home for a few days to recover. But on the Friday of Mother’s Day weekend in 2016, Jude woke up with a fever, too.

That afternoon he took a nap with his twin brother, Thomas. When Promoli came to check in on her sons, Thomas was awake and laughing, but Jude was unresponsive. “I realized very quickly that he wasn’t OK,” said Promoli.

In the months of mourning that followed, Promoli confronted the difficult task of talking to younger children about grief as she tried to help Isla through the loss of her brother.

But Jude’s death is still something the family is grappling with, partly because the spread of Influenza B in Isla’s school could have been prevented if the right precautions were taken.

Under the current COVID-19 pandemic, families are reluctantly sending their children back to school amid fear and sharp criticism of the Ontario government on whether it’s safe to do so — large class sizes have sparked questions on whether social distancing is physically possible, and outbreaks have been reported in schools in other parts of the country where students have already returned. Toronto public and Catholic classes will begin next week.

The pandemic has amounted to more than 134,000 cases and 9,000 deaths in  Canada, with the impact of COVID-19 touching lives from coast to coast. Fears of a second wave and a recent uptick in Ontario case numbers just as schools are opening for the first time since March Break has some wondering: what happens if severe illness or death from COVID-19 touches a school community?

Parents and teachers say that as the pandemic progresses, so does the need to have difficult conversations about grief with young people who may be confused or fearful of the virus. And psychology experts advise it’s better to be prepared to talk early about themes of loss with children rather than deal with the trauma as it comes.

Research shows older adults are at a higher risk of developing severe illness or of dying from COVID-19. Young people, especially children under 10, appear to be less likely to spread the virus, and children who do get COVID-19 tend to have symptoms that are mild or unnoticeable.

But as schools resume, the fear of infection spread is growing among those who are immunocompromised or more vulnerable to the disease.

In Arizona, a 61-year-old teacher died after contracting the virus while teaching summer school. Since fall classes resumed in the United States, teachers have died of COVID-19, including a 34-year-old social skills and special education teacher in Missouri and a third-grade teacher in South Carolina, proving the worst-case scenario within a school community is a possibility, no matter how small.

For Toronto teacher Andrew Reynolds at Runnymede Public School, that worst-case scenario for his classroom came in 2013 when his 11-year-old student, Alex, died from cancer.

Classmates knew Alex was ill and they made videos for him while he was in the hospital. But Alex was expected to survive, and his death came as a shock to the entire school community — one that Reynolds still remembers vividly seven years later. The funeral, he recalled, was the hardest part for him and his students.

“They needed time to talk about their feelings,” Reynolds said. “They need to see people that are openly grieving, and that it’s normal to feel these things, that it’s not weird they’re shaken in this way and that talking about it can be  helpful.”

Reynolds found himself attempting to field questions from Alex’s classmates in the aftermath, especially ones that seem unlikely to adults, like whether cancer was contagious. “An adult wouldn’t really think like that, but kids don’t know yet, and they need to be able to ask those things.”

Reynolds also put his normal lesson plan on hold for a while, and he instead encouraged his students to read or engage in small talk. Some of the reading materials, he said, attempted to address the grief they were feeling in a way that was accessible to them.

“The goal wasn’t an academic one, it was to give them peace of mind,” Reynolds said.

For Promoli, grief books for children were one way she was able to prepare Isla to talk about the death of her younger brother Jude when she was ready. “This is a big conversation, even for adults,” Promoli said. “A lot of people are not comfortable talking about death.”

Initially, Isla wanted life to resume as normal and just be “a kindergarten kid again,” her mother said. Meanwhile, her teacher and other school administration staff prepared for when Isla was ready to talk.

Isla eventually brought it up with a group of her friends during playtime —  her teacher overheard the conversation. Promoli said Isla’s opening up about her loss was a positive experience that encouraged her classmates to do the same.

“It was all these very, very small children who were able to talk together when she was ready, and it was really nice.”

Promoli and her family encouraged Isla’s school to add resources about grief to the library, and they donated some of the books that helped Isla.

Dana St. Jean, a Windsor-based therapist with the Canadian Mental Health Association, said it’s important that schools get the permission of parents to talk about grief and bereavement openly in class, as each family grieves differently based on culture and experience. St. Jean said protocols should be in place if something traumatic were to happen, like a death in the community.

St. Jean added it would be a good idea for teachers to talk about COVID-19 in general with their students in the first week of school. Part of that conversation could be about precautionary measures and safety to prevent spread, but also to allow children to talk about their emotions in response to lock down and the pandemic’s toll on the world around them.

“We want to ensure that we’re validating kids’ feelings, (and) there’s no right or wrong way to feel about it,” St. Jean said.

Reynolds said he’s been thinking a great deal about how to support his incoming students should someone in their families become seriously ill with COVID-19.

“I’m just trying to make sure that kids know school can wait,” he said. “We’ll always be there for you, and you need to take the time you need if something happens.”

Losing a student was tremendously heartbreaking, Reynolds said, and it would be devastating if the school community ever had to suffer another loss. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Alex,” he said. “He made an indelible mark on me.”

Reynolds added that he’s learned a lot about grief through Alex’s death, though he reminds himself that mental health challenges posed by the pandemic may be different.

“Being flexible is the only thing I can draw on from that time; having to adapt to what is in front of you,” Reynolds said.

Promoli said she believes it’s important to talk to young children about the pandemic, even to simply say that life is glaringly abnormal. “It’s OK to acknowledge that these times that we’re living through are different,” she said, adding it would give them space to talk about it with their teacher and classmates, too.

“It’s letting them know — before they need to know — that these conversations are not only OK, but they can be really good for them, too.”

There are times when the family still needs to outwardly mourn Jude, but Promoli said she ensures her home is a safe space to do so.

“We’ll still have days pop up when someone is having a sad day, and they’ll need extra hugs or there will be extra tears and they will say, ‘I just really miss Jude,’ ” Promoli said. “And they just need the time to sit down and talk it  out.”

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school amid COVID-19, Promoli has been focused on ensuring her children are prepared and taking the necessary precautions to stop the virus from spreading in the first place. They’ve been practising wearing their colourful masks for long hours, and washing their hands  twice in a row while singing “Happy Birthday.”

Since Jude’s death, Promoli has taken on a role in raising awareness about the flu shot and vaccinations that can keep everyone safe. With COVID-19, taking the necessary precautions has been top of mind.

“We can’t have Jude back,” Promoli said, but they can prevent other families from experiencing similar grief.

Resources for helping children grieve:

  • Jill Promoli recommends  “Rabbityness” by Jo Empson. It’s her family’s go-to book and one fit for all ages: “It’s a book about the loss of a beloved friend and the legacy they leave behind, and how we can continue to love them when they’re gone,” she said.
  • Other recommendations from Promoli include “The Goodbye Book” by Todd Parr (colourful pictures and simple language make it a good choice for younger children); “When Dinosaurs Die” by Laurie Krasny Brown (helps families work through the big questions in an age-appropriate way).
  • Children’s Mental Health Ontario  (CMHO) has a list of resources and guidelines on its website on how to talk to children about grief, anxiety and loss related to COVID-19. The guidelines focus on staying informed as a parent or guardian and focusing the conversation on things that are in the child’s control, like hand-washing regularly, practising social distancing and limiting touching their face.
  • On grief and dealing with the death of a loved one from COVID-19, CMHO recommends being clear and honest. “Depending on a child’s age, telling them that ‘we lost grandpa,’ or that  ‘auntie has gone to a better place,’ can be confusing,” the guidelines say. Instead, it’s better to explain the death and the illness that caused it in simple terms.

They add it’s OK to answer any follow-up questions children may have about the death with a simple “I don’t know” if there is no answer. But it’s important to field their questions, listen to their concerns and validate their feelings as they come. It’s also important to be honest about your own feelings as a parent or guardian, too.

By: Nadine Yousif, Toronto Star, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter