BALTIMORE - Dee Wright worked this summer on Operatio Desert Shield - not packing her bags to join soldiers on duty in the Saudi sands, but planning how to help their children cope with having mom and dad far away and on the brink of war.
It was time well spent.
Wright is the counselor at Manor View an elementary school operated by Anne Arundel County on the grounds of Fort Meade, Maryland. All but a handful of the 700 students there are from military families.
So far, Wright has helped parents through a troubled holiday season, alerted teachers to symptoms of stress that might signal family problems and answered questions, such as ''Is my daddy going to die?''
And with tomorrow's deadline for withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, Wright continues to make plans and share information that ''I hope we never have to use.'' Late last week, she and a school psychologist and psychiatrist conducted a teacher's workshop on grief and loss.
''We're trying to get the information to the people who need it. We want to have everything together - just in case,'' says Wright.
Manor View has perhaps the best-laid plans of any area school for helping students deal with the anxiety and fear that arise from the threat of war.
At Roy Williams Elementary school in Aberdeen, there is also an ambitious program to help the nearly 800 students, 87 percent of whom come from military families. ''As a school, our kids are very much aware of the crisis in the Middle East,'' says Steve Hardy, principal of the school a few miles from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. ''Indeed, it's a very stressful time.''
Hardy began his preparations in early December through staff development sessions on handling crises and identifying stress and depression in youngsters. He has also put together a staff team of ''interventionists'' to help teachers handle problems they are not comfortable with.
''We are not therapists, we are educators. But we need to take a look at the situation and do for these children what we would do for our own children,'' says Hardy.
At least 60 students at the elementary school have parents or other family members in the Persian Gulf, he says.
Hardy has shared his programs with the staffs at several other Harford County schools with large numbers of children from military families.
In other schools, where the students' involvement is not as obvious, teachers, guidance counselors and administrators are prepared to deal with students individually as the need arises.
''It's not something we're avoiding,'' says Brian Lockard, assistant superintendent of instruction for Carroll County schools. But there, as in most schools, the job of helping anxious or fearful children falls to counselors alerted by teachers. In the Baltimore schools, says Sara Gray, coordinator of guidance services, ''We have asked teachers to be sensitive to any changes in behavior and to let guidance counselors know if students have family members involved.''
Last week, Gray issued a memo reiterating these requests. ''There has to be the sensitivity that there are many of our kids out there who are struggling,'' she adds.
Talking to young children about the threat of war presents teachers with a fine line, because in many cases bringing up such a topic can ''agitate and aggravate'' youngsters rather than reassure them, Gray says.
With young children, it is best to ''answer their questions as the need arises'' and calm their fears about their own safety, says Barbara Ellis, assistant principal of an elementary school in Parkville.
School should be a ''strong and supportive'' environment, she adds.
Even at Fort Meade's Manor View, the school routine and activities are vital to helping students cope with crisis, Wright says.
''Things at home are not normal. Sometimes it's a relief to be in school. Our teachers are doing a fantastic job . . . keeping these kids together day by day.''
And many of the kids - especially those with parents in the Middle East - have devised their own coping strategies. Some wear a father's wristwatch or a parent's shirt. ''When they hold onto that, it's a part of dad,'' says Wright.
She's also noticed that as many youngsters pass the huge world map that has hung on the wall for years, they put their hands
gently over Saudi Arabia.