The students only knew that the meeting had been scheduled on short notice, that it was important they attend, and that school administrators and counselors would be on the call.
From their respective homes, located throughout Marietta, Ga., the high schoolers clicked the link their teacher had provided and joined a Zoom meeting, no doubt curious—maybe even anxious—about what was coming.
Then the head of school counseling, Taisa Turner, began speaking: Unfortunately, we’re having this meeting today to let you know that one of your classmates has passed away.
Turner, the counseling department chair at Wheeler High School, part of Cobb County School District, told the students that the death was sudden, but not related to COVID-19. She wanted them to know immediately so they could begin to process the news. Turner then talked to the students about grief—what it looks like, the different stages they may go through, how each one of them would process it differently, and that no feeling was wrong or inappropriate.
The students sat stunned. Most had not heard about their classmate’s death. They had been out of school for a month, and it was not one of those cases, Turner later explained, where word got out on social media before school staff could address it internally. As a result, these students—15- and 16-year-olds, mostly—were learning some very difficult news as they stared blankly into their computer screens, some while home alone.
The first call “just felt bizarre,” Turner recalls. “You want to be able to see the reactions of people, to see who needs extra support. That felt initially uncomfortable to us” on the video call.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed social interactions and major life events of all stripes. Often, the virtual substitutes to those experiences can feel awkward or stilted: listening to the live-streamed exchange of wedding vows, sharing a first date over a video call, meeting a newborn through FaceTime or watching a student graduate through Zoom.
The more difficult events, too, have found virtual alternatives: Memorial services have been held online, and in the case of Cobb County—and many other schools that experienced a student or staff death this spring—grief counseling is taking place through live video sessions.
When schools closed abruptly in March, district leadership at Cobb County—one of the largest districts in the country, with about 113,000 students—told the staff to be thinking about how their work could translate to an online format. Patti Agatston, the crisis response coordinator for the district, recalls that a couple of her colleagues said to her, “I guess you won’t be able to do crisis response now.”
To which she remembers replying: “Oh yeah we will, of course we will. It’ll just look a little different.”
The last in-person day in the district was Friday, March 13. Agatston and Melisa Marsh, Cobb County’s school counseling supervisor, put their heads together and, by the following Wednesday, had written up guidance for schools doing virtual crisis response. Such plans often address a death but can also cover a natural disaster or other major trauma, such as a school shooting.
They didn’t finish a moment too soon: On Thursday, the women received word of a death in the district, and by Friday they were implementing their virtual crisis response plan.
“Face-to-face, it’s so intimate,” Marsh says of the standard crisis response. “To do it in an online format, we didn’t know if it would translate.”
Agatston, too, had misgivings.
“Of course there was uncertainty,” Agatston acknowledges, “but at the same time, I had to offer this service. I knew we’d learn as we went along—and we did.”
The response, as outlined in the guidance Agatston and Marsh had just created, involved the school principal and “local care team,” a designated group of school counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses who are tapped to respond to crises as they arise.
Under normal circumstances, if school was open and classes were held face-to-face, Agatston would have connected with the local care team to schedule a staff meeting. They’d explain the details of what happened and make a plan for addressing the crisis with students. In the event of a student death, the staff would typically follow the deceased student’s class schedule, and in each classroom they would inform the students of the death, go over basic grief education and let them know that counseling was available.
The counselors would also set up a “care center” in the school, which provides letter-writing materials for students to make cards for the family of the deceased, art therapy supplies and music. Those physical spaces also provide a way for counseling staff to make note of who sought out additional help and may need one-on-one support.
Virtual Grieving Guidance
Though there are no care centers on Zoom, some elementary school teachers involved in a virtual crisis response this spring told their students to show up to the meeting with construction paper and crayons, so they could all make cards online together, Agatston shared. The school would then organize a drop-off for the bereaved family.
When Turner, the counseling department chair at Wheeler High School, learned in mid-April that one of her students had passed away, Agatston and Marsh had already led a couple of virtual crisis responses and shared some of the lessons they’d learned. (The district has had at least 11 deaths since March, including several that occurred after the school year ended in late May. Most of the deaths were students, and to the district’s knowledge, none of the deaths was caused by COVID-19.)
One of the main things Agatston has learned: It’s helpful to have the students turn on their videos and show their faces, as their expressions and body language can signal to staff which students are taking the news the hardest. This is always something staff are paying close attention to in face-to-face grief sessions, since the kids who are worst affected are not necessarily the ones who were closest with the person who died.
“That was the part we were all concerned about the whole time we were doing class meetings: watching the body language,” Turner shared.
This is more difficult than it sounds. Many students won’t show up to the virtual meeting at all. Of those who do, plenty will choose to keep their cameras off. And given that some kids may be home alone, or that many of them are already experiencing trauma and loss from the pandemic, the stakes are high.
“One of the biggest things I struggled with is I can’t be there for them” in person, Turner said. “I have to rely that they’re going to attend this Zoom meeting—that they feel comfortable, that they feel safe to do that. And then some students didn’t feel comfortable [appearing on camera]. It left us with a lot of concern for the student. ‘Are they O.K.?’ It was a challenge for us.”
The student at Wheeler who passed away was a member of the school band, Turner said. After staff met with the student’s classmates, they held two concurrent meetings with the band members to let them know. Turner remembers scrolling through the pages of small squares on the call to study students’ faces and “monitor reactions.” She estimated that about 100 students attended the band meetings.
In each grief session, Turner and her colleagues suggested some activities the students could do to process their emotions. But “it was all on their own,” she said. “That was the hardest part: They couldn’t go to their friends or hug their classmates.”
At the end of the day—a very long day, Turner said—the counseling and crisis response staff got on one more call, this time with each other, to discuss how the sessions went, which students they should keep an eye out and what they would do differently if another crisis occurred during the closures.
“The debriefing part is so essential in any crisis response environment, but it was critical doing it virtually, because we’ve not been here before,” Turner said.
The virtual crisis response plan that Marsh and Agatston put together in March—and that Turner followed in April—was shared with districts throughout Georgia and in other states, Marsh said. Counseling staff across the country were looking for guidance on an issue that, for many, was unprecedented.
“Crisis response is hard any way you experience it. You never really know what to expect—grief looks so different developmentally, depending on age,” Turner said. “But there is comfort in knowing there are guidelines to follow, and that they’re organized.”