How North Salem teachers addressed the crisis at the Capitol

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The insurrection at the United States Capitol on Wednesday left North Salem teachers with another difficult decision in an already difficult school year: how to talk to their students about what took place? While traditional guidance from education experts and school psychologists on talking with kids about traumatic events varies depending on their age, all of the standard guidance was made harder to implement by virtue of an all-remote learning environment.

North Salem High School social studies teacher Chris Regan said he opened each of his Thursday classes with a discussion and a question and answer session. “I began each class by assuring the students that they were not alone in their traumatic and unsure feelings, and that I felt the exact same way,” he said. Regan drew parallels between Wednesday’s attack and that of attacks on Pearl Harbor and on 9/11, though he emphasized that the historical events were carried out by foreigners rather than by fellow American citizens.

Regan acknowledged that it was much more challenging to engage students to verbally express their thoughts in a full remote setting.

At nearby Somers High School, Teaching Assistant Todd Currie Jr. also found the online class format to result in more muted discussions. “The teacher brought up the topic and gave the students a chance to share their opinions, but still not much discussion resulted,” he said, though students acknowledged that they had seen the news.

Wednesday’s events were particularly fraught given how much of the riot was streamed live online via social platforms. The mob began descending on the Capitol around 1PM Eastern, a time when students of all grade levels were engaged in online learning. Many students visit YouTube, TikTok and other online social platforms in between classes or during free periods. By late Wednesday, several videos had proliferated on YouTube depicting the fatal shooting of a female rioter.

It’s easy to imagine how confusing and scary it would have been for students learning remotely to discover such horrific imagery without the ability to access the context and support that the in-person learning environment of school provides. Tweens and teens are more likely to be on social media and more likely to be without consistent parent supervision throughout the remote school day. Tweens in particular are the most inclined of any children’s demographic to report that the news makes them feel afraid – 45%, according to a 2017 report by Common Sense Media.

At the elementary school level, traumatic situations like the ones that took place on Wednesday are often not directly addressed in school. Pequenakonck Elementary School (PQ) Principal Mary Johnson said, “elementary schools do not necessarily overtly have conversations about these situations as it may not be age appropriate.” Rather, the school leaves it up to individual families to make decisions about what their children are exposed to “based on the age of the children or their ability to understand these intense and upsetting events.”

Jennifer Latterner-Jeter, a parent of an 11th grader and a 5th grader in the District, said, "I think it should have been a talking point in all 5th grade classes." She felt that what took place in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday presented an opportunity to discuss a range of issues and ideas with a grade level that is learning about government. "Are we not raising the future generation? Don't we want them to begin discussing things that matter?" she asked, adding that she feels it's important for kids to be discussing current events and to be exposed in school to views other than those of their immediate family.

Principal Johnson acknowledged that teachers are better equipped to have these types of discussions in person, as opposed to on Google Meets. “It may not have come up as readily as it would have had we been in school,” she said, adding that more discussions may take place next week when students return to in-person learning and as Inauguration Day nears. PQ school psychologists Dr. Merriman and Dr. Ross will be available to help students who might be struggling.

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