IUPUI-led project aims to reduce coronavirus-related trauma among school personnel

INDIANAPOLIS -- With the abrupt closure of schools across the country, U.S. students, teachers and other school personnel are one of the groups most strongly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In response, IUPUI researchers are accelerating work on a project to protect teachers -- as well as other school personnel -- from the dangerous impact of undue mental and emotional strain.

The project, led in part by faculty in the Indiana University School of Social Work and IU School of Nursing at IUPUI, takes aim at "secondary trauma" in teachers and other school personnel. The term refers to the psychological burden experienced by people who work with vulnerable populations, especially during times of crisis.

"People tend to work in schools because they love kids -- so hearing about the things their students are facing outside of school during this time is especially difficult," said Barbara Pierce, an associate professor in the IU School of Social Work and one of the three co-leaders on the project.

"They may also experience feelings of guilt at not always being available to their students, even if they're attending to their own families."

For many students, school closures can mean losing access to essential resources such as regular meals, health care (in the form of school nurses and clinics run by nurse practitioners), mental health care, and a safe space without the risk of exposure to drug activity or physical or sexual abuse.

The knowledge that students are facing these challenges can weigh heavily on school personnel, producing anxiety or depression or fueling feelings of burnout, which threaten educational workforce numbers.

Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Clinical Scholars Program, IUPUI faculty and a community partner are working to deploy peer-driven activities, such as workshops and peer discussion groups, in local schools to reduce secondary trauma. The designed activities encourage a culture in which the emotionally difficult aspects of educational work are openly discussed and acknowledged.

"A similar approach is already occurring among police and the military," Pierce said. "It's important to deal with these issues before they develop into PTSD. You need to normalize and acknowledge that these are stressful jobs. That's a healthier way of dealing with it."

The additional project leaders are Wanda Thruston, a clinical assistant professor in the IU School of Nursing, and Megan Carlson, chief nursing officer at the Shalom Health Care Center, which provides health care services to over 30 schools across Indianapolis.

Under the grant, awarded in late 2018, the project's leaders spent about a year producing educational videos on secondary trauma -- as well as training 25 peer educators at their partner schools to deliver the materials.

The partner schools are North Central High School, in Washington Township in Indianapolis, and Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, an alternative charter high school that is part of Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana.

The project is now working to collect updated data on stressors from the coronavirus pandemic and adapt interventions accordingly.

Beyond concern for students, Thruston said, the rapid transition to remote instruction during the pandemic -- often while simultaneously trying to educate and care for their own children -- has been a major stressor on school personnel.

Many school leaders are also wrestling with difficult challenges related to the eventual end of stay-at-home orders, such as how crowded school districts will be able to maintain safe social-distancing practices.

"There are a lot of hard questions," said Thruston, who also serves on the school board of Washington Township and the advisory board of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. "How do you manage a classroom where students are required to sit 6 feet apart? How do you physically distance in cafeterias, playgrounds, school buses and hallways? How do you handle handwashing?"

Many school personnel are older adults or have comorbidities that put them at greater risk for COVID-19, she added. How do you manage their fears and safety? Students may also have physical chronic illnesses that increase their risk, and both students and school personnel may be experiencing grief and loss as a result of colleagues or family members who did not survive the pandemic. What support will they require?

The researchers plan to distribute surveys on these issues to their partnering schools -- as well as all other public schools in Indiana and eight states in the Midwest -- in the coming weeks. Their earlier work to forge local partnerships and train peer educators in these schools will ensure they are able to quickly roll out resources to school personnel upon their return to the classroom.

"A worldwide pandemic at the level of COVID-19 has not occurred since 1918," Thruston said. "It's going to take a lot of work to ensure the physical, mental and emotional health of school communities across the U.S."

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