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‘There is no lesson plan for this’: Teachers brace for hard questions about Maine shootings

Education tech Suzanne Marston accompanied first-grader Emma Harrison as they tried to pick an activity during a two-hour period Monday when Elm Street School in Mechanic Falls, Maine, opened its doors to students to come for lunch and activities a day before they return to school for lessons.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On Monday morning, across much of the state of Maine, teachers and school administrators huddled, preparing for what was sure to be a day unlike any other — the return to school following the deadliest mass shooting in the state’s history. But as they worked out a plan for how to welcome their students back following the trauma and fear of recent days, it quickly became clear it wasn’t just the students who were reeling.

”I don’t think I can give the message anymore that they’re going to be safe,” said Cindy Cormier, a teacher at the Elm Street School, an elementary in Mechanic Falls, just 10 miles from Lewiston, where a gunman killed 18 people last Wednesday. “You’re not safe anywhere anymore.”

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Her colleague, Kim Green, agreed. “I feel like I’m lying when I say that,” she said. “And they know that I’m lying. They’re smart.”

Social worker Tracy Comeau (center) cupped his hand to his ear as he gathered with teachers at Elm Street School in Mechanic Falls and tried to navigate what a return to school will look like for staff and students.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The educators were speaking at a crisis response meeting at the school, led by a social worker from StrengthenME, a state program, ahead of reopening Tuesday. Like their colleagues around the state, the Elm Street teachers were grappling with how to do their jobs, and reassure their students, when they themselves are still traumatized.

Green taught in Lewiston for seven years, joining the Elm Street School just two weeks ago. Other teachers live in Lewiston. Each one knows people there, as well as in neighboring Auburn, and Lisbon, where the gunman’s body was found. No one is more than a few steps removed from the tragedy.

So like many school districts around Lewiston, Regional School Unit 16, which includes the Elm Street School, delayed students’ return to train teachers how to best handle difficult conversations students may have about the shootings. Monday morning was given over to training and planning, then at noon, families were invited for an open house, which included counseling for families who wanted it.

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Arielle Worrall, the social worker, encouraged the teachers to also look after themselves, “to give themselves grace,” even if that meant just allowing themselves time to go to the bathroom, she said, to knowing laughs from the teachers.

But the teachers conveyed the students’ needs were more pressing.

“I’m the control center at the airport. If I’m taking a break, we’re going to see some plane crashes,” said teacher Jennifer Lacombe.

The practical questions were pressing. How do you project safety when you don’t feel safe yourself? What do you do if one kid is on social media and tries to share graphic details with classmates? What about if a kid starts acting out the shooting on the playground?

“There is no lesson plan for this,” Worrall acknowledged.

Teacher Leetta Linscott held a handout titled Talking to Students as she and her co-workers gathered at Elm Street School on Monday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Still, school leaders offered what they could. After the conversation with Worrall, the school’s bus drivers joined the meeting, and principal Jessica Madsen outlined the school’s basic strategy for the coming week. They had secured extra substitutes, in case teachers needed to take time for themselves, and an extra counselor for Tuesday. Staff would ride the buses Tuesday morning, so there would be multiple adults to greet students.

They won’t talk about the specifics of what happened.

“We’re not going to allow our kids to freely talk about what they have seen or what they have heard,” Madsen said. “Some parents are very protective of what they have shared. ... We’re going to respect that.”

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If students start asking questions, teachers were encouraged to tell them they should ask their parents. If they start sharing information, or misinformation, teachers were given a simple message and told to call the administration, who could hold private conversations: “We’re not going to talk about this here.”

But even the most protected kids would know something was wrong, school social worker Tracy Comeau noted. So teachers were given an introductory script. Even if they didn’t feel safe themselves, they could still reassure students of all the work that goes into keeping them safe: Doors are locked, visitors have to sign in, and there are emergency protocols.

Most importantly, school leaders kept repeating, teachers should convey to the students they care.

“They’re going to know they can rely on you,” said Diana Rogers, a social worker stationed in the building.

Teachers were given ways to channel students’ energy into action, like writing cards to first responders. Academics would be low stakes, with no new material this week, and there would be extra social-emotional lessons and activities.

Farther from the site of the tragedy, Caron Morse, a social worker at Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland, said her school opted to start on time Monday. The goal, she said, was normalcy.

Ahead of the school day, at 8:15 Monday morning, Morse and the school’s administration held a voluntary meeting for staff. The first order of business, she said, was to address safety and remind teachers that the school is safe, and what its procedures are.

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Then Morse stepped in to address how to talk to the students about being back in school. “The kids at this point had had four days to be home with their family unit, which is really where they should get the bulk of the information and the processing from,” she said in an interview.

By 8:45, they were ready for students.

Once the kids landed in their classrooms, they held a circle check-in, something that is a regular part of their day. But this was more focused than usual, beginning with breathing exercises, following by a chance for each student to share how they were feeling. Anyone who needed extra support could ask for it, or give a note to their teacher.

“Our job in school is to kind of read the room and see, wow, OK, so 19 out of my 20 students are wanting to move on with the day and to lean into the schedule, and to have fun and to talk about sports and Halloween,” Morse said. As of midday Monday, a few students had been flagged as needing some extra support, and that’s where Morse or others could swoop in to help.

For the most part, she said, while adults are still processing a scary time, the kids were ready to be back in their routine.

“Kids right now want to talk about Halloween. They want to talk about the soccer tournament,” Morse said.

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Second-grade teacher Jessica Harvey chatted with student Avery Barnett, 7.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Angela Atkinson Duina, executive director of elementary schools for the Portland school district, said that in preparing for the return to school, administrators found themselves in a strange position — they needed to get back to normal as quickly as possible for the kids, even though the situation in Lewiston is “not what we want to consider normal,” she said.

”What we know is right for kids is for them to be able to have those normal routines and to feel like they are very much a part of a safe community, and that they are part of a community that cares for them and will be there for them,” she said.

Atkinson Duina said it was also important that they take extra care with the adults — the teachers and staff.

“We carry worries about school violence regularly as part of our work and our safety plans,” she said.



Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit. Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.