Carmen James Randolph.1

Carmen James Randolph

COVID-19 has brought with it great trauma. In New Orleans, we’ve lost loved ones, jobs, and a world in which we could shake hands with neighbors and go outside without masks. Our children feel these losses. And for many of them, while this crisis is unprecedented, trauma is not. Many of our young people carry heavy weights that just got heavier; COVID-19 compounds existing pain and reopens old wounds.

But New Orleans’ children do not need to carry this alone. Our community can help. We must invest in schools’ and nonprofits’ power to support students’ mental health.

In a recent paper, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies declared that “the trauma caused by this public health crisis will be carried and embodied for the longest time by the youth that are living through it.”

IWES has also done research on the trauma that many of our children faced before this moment. And our oldest students were babies during Hurricane Katrina; the foundations of their worlds were shaken just as they were being set.

Educators know children’s trauma can be misunderstood as ADHD, disinterest, or “acting out,” but they don’t always have the resources, capacity, or training to help. A study by the Greater New Orleans Foundation released alongside NOLA Public Schools addressed this. Educators said mental health care was their students’ biggest unmet need. Parents said grief and trauma counseling was a priority.

This was our city’s reality before COVID-19 hit. The need is stronger today. Even if students did not have consistent access to mental health support, schools brought stability just by opening their doors each day. When they closed this spring, children lost their daily routines, the joy of being with peers, and the in-person connection with educators, school nurses and counselors that could bolster them.

So no matter the structure of school, students will begin the year with new and compounded trauma. Many schools have already taken action, focusing not just on academics and technology, but how students feel. Since this crisis began, they have been hubs for connecting students to resources for both mental health and basic needs like meals, health care and housing. And now, educators are planning not just for this year’s lessons, but for social-emotional and trauma-informed work.

This focus is meaningful but not yet enough. Philanthropists and policymakers alike must help out.

New Orleans’ nonprofits play a front-line role, but our recent study found they have been hard-hit by the virus. GNOF has provided recent grants totaling over $210,000 to nonprofits addressing the health and well-being of young people. Schools themselves need investments, too; philanthropists can donate to our city’s nonprofit charter schools or networks. City and state policymakers can advocate for funding for budget-strapped schools’ mental health and trauma supports.

These efforts are not supplemental. They are urgent, imperative, and we can make them work. New Orleanians are generous and resilient. We love deeply and stubbornly. In the hardest of times, we put our children first. We are all hurting, but together, we will help our young people heal.

Carmen James Randolph is vice president of programs for the Greater New Orleans Foundation.