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FDSTL Focuses on Challenges Faced by DS Teachers, Students

Dharma School teachers and experts recently discussed the many challenges facing educators and students in the pandemic — from mental health concerns to classroom strategies to vaccinations.

The aim of the Federation of Dharma School Teachers’ League (FDSTL) fifth online workshop on Aug. 14 wasn’t on reopening Dharma School, especially in light of the delta variant surging nationwide and casting uncertainty in the near future about reopening for many temples and churches.

“We want to have this workshop to assist in the eventual return to in-person learning,” said FDSTL Vice President Carl Yanari, who served as moderator for the Zoom meeting. “So the focus of the workshop is not on logistics like what to do to reopen. We realize that every chapter is unique — variations on facilities, student enrollment, teacher availability, even weather for holding outdoor classes — is different for each of our chapters.

“While the questions asked here will undoubtedly touch on the logistics, we wanted to focus on what to expect as we return to in-person learning. What challenges will we face as teachers? What impact has the pandemic had on children’s mental health?” Yanari continued. “What are the facts about children and COVID? How do we keep children safe, given the lack of vaccines for elementary-aged children?”

The workshop presentation featured: Dr. Kathy Obana, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat) physician; Dr. Serenity Serseción, a psychologist; Rev. Henry Adams, of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple and supervising minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; Angie Lew, an elementary school reading specialist; Stacy Uyeda, a middle school teacher; Brian Tamekuni, an elementary school teacher; and Laurie Handa, an elementary school teacher.

The series of presentations were followed by a panel discussion.

Uyeda, who teaches eighth-graders at Albany Middle School and is the Dharma School superintendent for the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, kicked off the presentations by describing her in-person instruction at Albany and how she plans to incorporate her experiences with Dharma School.

Uyeda said she returned to her Albany classroom in April, teaching a hybrid model — with half of the students physically in class and the other half at home. She described the hybrid situation as “very challenging” and ultimately not a technique she and her fellow teachers liked.

She noted three student realities — physical, mental and emotional — and what actions teachers could take in response.

“They’re not earth-shattering, but they’re a good reminder of what’s happening,” she said. She noted physical realities such as students arriving tired or out of shape from being home so much during the pandemic and suggested that teachers build in structure and fun.

Uyeda said there were mental realities, including some students forgetting Dharma School basics or feeling disengaged from school and from a classroom. She suggested that teachers create lots of opportunities to work collaboratively and without ranking.

“I think that it’s not a good time to do a lot of contests where somebody is the winner and somebody is a loser,” she said. “It’s really a great time to build back communities.”

And, then there are emotional realities, she said, including the fact that some students might truly feel strange talking in person again or may feel disconnected from teachers or peers.

“This may be my most important point. A teacher can create many opportunities to see and hear each student to really give each student a chance to have a voice, even if it’s not speaking,” Uyeda said. “There may be something that they can show or draw or demonstrate ways to show that you see them and acknowledge them.”

Dr. Serseción, a licensed clinical psychologist who is a member of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, began by noting that it’s common for pre-teens to start developing depression, anxiety and mental health issues that they may carry into adulthood. She said she’s noticed an increase in depression among pre-teens, transitioning from childhood to adolescence.

“A lot of kids have just been sad at home that they can’t see their friends, they can’t talk to anyone,” Dr. Serseción said. “Maybe they only have adults in their life. It’s hard for families to find people to bubble with, and some people might not feel safe, so that’s definitely been a problem. Also, keep in mind that friendships change over time.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that the kids who maybe are not as good or able to keep in contact online have lost some of their friends because it’s kind of like — out of sight, out of mind,” she continued. “And, for a child, a year is a very long time. So I’ve seen people struggling with that and some of the help I’ve been trying to give is to help them reconnect with their friends if possible or make a new one.”

Dr. Serseción also noted that some people may have lost someone in their lives, either because of COVID-19 or not.

“I’ve seen a lot of people deal with loss, so when they come back, not only are they dealing with their stress and seeing people again, but they haven’t really processed that loss, and so just understanding that might be what they’re going through,” she said.

She also said she’s seen younger children go through an “existential crisis because their idea that they were immortal or that nothing bad would happen to them has changed because there’s a global pandemic. So they’re dealing with things that you wouldn’t expect to see until they were older.”

Dr. Serseción also pointed out the importance of mental health of Dharma School teachers, and urged them to take a break and to “do your own self-care.”

Dr. Katherine Obana, an otolaryngologist and former Dharma School teacher for 10 years and a member of the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, described the COVID-19 statistics on children.

As of early August, she noted that there were 4.3 million total cases of COVID-19 in the United States and that children represent 14.3 percent of the total COVID-19 cases. In early August, there were only approximately 360 COVID-19 related deaths of children compared with more than 600,000 deaths of adults in the nation.

“Kids get much milder forms of COVID if they get it,” Dr. Obana said, saying the symptoms are mild, such as a runny nose, congestion, coughing and fever. Many children, she said, are suspected to be asymptomatic.

She noted a rise of nearly 100,000 COVID-19 infections among children the week ending Aug. 5 because of the delta variant and lower vaccination rates.

Dr. Obana said the best way to prevent COVID-19 in young children is to vaccinate all eligible people interacting with them — anybody over 12 years of age — and by wearing masks in indoor settings and socially distancing as much as possible.

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Rev. Adams, who began by asking the teachers for strategies to keep students engaged in a distance learning format.

Angie Lew, a reading specialist and member of Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, said that some of her students didn’t know how to talk on Zoom or how to interact and respond with other students. She found that coaching and practicing with the children and having visible things like pictures to talk about helped improve their skills.

Uyeda, who is the mother of two teenagers, said that for tweens and teens, a good strategy is to use the chat function to get them engaged and paying attention “and then find ways for them to verbalize and use their voice.”

Handa, a fifth-grade charter school teacher and a member of San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, added that chatting with an individual student at first and then sharing that chat with other students serves to acknowledge that student. Using breakout rooms helped, too, she said.

Tamekuni, who teaches at the Campbell Unified School District and is a member of San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, suggested an activity like an interactive game where students don’t have to worry about doing an assignment incorrectly.

He said a lot of students have preferences on how they want to communicate on Zoom. He said some would ask not to appear on camera or use the speaker function, but would chat with him “which was fine because I knew they were paying attention.” Others would use the speaker function a lot, he said.

Dr. Serseción cautioned that placing restrictions based on who’s vaccinated or not may result in pushback. “I think no matter what community you’re in, you’re going to have some people who respond badly and will see it as a threat to their freedom and ability to choose,” she said.

Dr. Obana addressed the medical side of reopening, particularly the issue of vaccination.

“The interesting thing is that when they actually look at when kids do get COVID or unvaccinated people do get COVID, it’s actually not usually in structured situations like school,” she said. “It’s usually when they go home, and then there’s a family gathering and everybody’s at home without masks, and there’s no monitoring. It’s probably the best thing to do is to wear masks, when you’re in a group situation and especially inside.”

She also pointed out that outdoor activities are about 90 percent safer than indoors, even without masks.

In his concluding remarks, Rev. Adams said: “Dr. Serseción suggested that people are going to have different ways of thinking about this (vaccination) and my thinking is we want to include everyone. That really needs to be the heart of our Sangha, but not necessarily in a way that puts anyone at risk.

“Our wish is to keep everybody together and to create this refuge in our hearts and minds in this continuing stressful time for people of all different perspectives, all different levels of vaccine eligibility, all ages,” Rev. Adams said.


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