The New York Life Foundation has been supporting families and school communities experiencing everyday grief for more than a decade, so when the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the country, the Foundation, through its Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative, was prepared to help.
“When the pandemic overtook the country, it exposed a public health issue that we already knew existed and were well-prepared to address,” said Maria Collins, Vice President, New York Life Foundation. “The pandemic gave us the opportunity to shine a light on GSSI and demonstrate our ability to act quickly to provide critical support to educators and grieving students at a time when the need in school communities has never been greater.”
Partnering for a purpose
As COVID-19 cases in New York City were rapidly rising, the New York Life Foundation and the New York City Department of Education (NYCDoE), the nation’s largest school district which includes 1,800 schools, were in discussions about delivering what has historically been an in-person training virtually and at-scale.
The two organizations launched a series of trainings in the spring of 2020 that would apply to the nine subdistricts or Borough Citywide Offices each that make up various zones of the New York City school district. Trainings include virtual presentations given by members of New York Life’s workforce (GSSI Ambassadors) and sessions led by New York Life Foundations partner, Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The new virtual model is not only easy to replicate, but large numbers of the school community from various districts are able to participate at the same time, ensuring that teachers and students are quickly receiving much-needed support.
“The training provided educators with practical advice on how to establish a supportive classroom environment for grieving students, including what to say (and what not to say) and how to provide academic accommodations and address grief triggers in the classroom; free resources from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (the New York Life Foundation is a founding member) were highlighted to meet some of the unique challenges of providing support to grieving students during the current pandemic,” said Dr. Schonfeld.
According to Dr. Schonfeld, “Educators reported that the training provided useful information on how to support grieving students (3.9 of a possible 4.0) and next steps they could put into action (3.7 of possible 4.0) and left them feeling more comfortable talking with and helping grieving students (3.8 of possible 4.0); more than 95% indicated they plan to visit the Coalition website to learn more about how to support grieving students.”
In addition to actionable resources to help students coping with grief, each subdistrict that meets GSSI criteria and completes the training is eligible for grant for up to $180,000 (depending on the number of schools within the subdistrict that participate) and community credits from New York Life Foundation partner First Book. Educators can use these credits to select books and resources about grief, loss and healing from First Book’s online Marketplace that best meet their students’ needs.
To date, 1,021 NYC schools have had at least one staff member trained in the Grief Sensitive Schools Initiative; 3,835 staff members (inclusive of Principals, Teachers, Social Workers, Paraprofessionals) have been trained; and 204 schools have been trained with five or more staff members.
Going virtual has its benefits
The pandemic proved to be the catalyst which accelerated an already existing need for grief support in schools across the country, especially for teachers. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers found that lack of training tops the list of factors that educators identify as the biggest challenge in supporting grieving students.
“We at Brooklyn South (one NYCDoE’s nine subdistricts that comprise the larger school district) believe that learning is emotional and providing professional learning opportunities that foster grief sensitive strategies to support students, families, and educators, is essential in the wellness and engagement of all members of the school community,” said Stu Chasabenis, Acting Director of Student Services, Certified Yoga Instructor & Mindfulness Lead, Brooklyn South Field Support Center.
Fortunately, the Foundation’s GSSI ambassadors saw the increased demand in their communities and responded. Throughout 2020, the Foundation was able to recruit more than 100 new GSSI ambassadors to deliver the presentations to more than 760 new schools in nearly 190 new cities. Since the official launch of GSSI in 2018, the Foundation has awarded more than $1,000,000 in grants to more than 2,600 schools in nearly 900 cities in 47 states. The virtual format of GSSI trainings will enable the Foundation to continue quickly reaching new districts, with Miami-Dade among the next districts to begin rolling out this program.
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