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A Tough Assignment For Students

From high schools to preschools, teachers and students began the school week with a tough assignment - how to talk about the space shuttle Columbia disaster and the deaths of its seven astronauts.

A few schools in New York City started the day with a moment of silence. Schools in and around Raleigh, N.C., left it to individual teachers to choose an approach, said system spokesman Mike Evans.

In a county outside Baltimore, questions would be asked and answered but televisions were shut off at elementary schools, said Jacqueline Haas, superintendent in Harford County.

"You always have to tell them the truth and tell them what they need to know, but be cautious," Haas said. The images, over and over again, were too much, she said. "Kids get satiated with it."

And at St. John the Baptist Catholic Pre-School in New Freedom, Pa., teachers wrestled with how to tell their 3- and 4-year-old students about the tragedy. The students had sent tomato seeds aboard the craft as part of a science experiment.

"They're very young to handle this," said teacher Kathy Rohr.

Four students from a Syracuse, N.Y., high school had waited more than three years for their science experiment - an ant farm - to fly into space.

They watched excitedly, and nervously, as the Columbia shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center last month with their project on board. The students even had a mascot: a big, stuffed ant they named "Anty EM."

"We knew that risks are present all the time. But we thought we were home free," said Abby Golash, one of the four students from Fowler High School, said Sunday as she and the others met at a teacher's home to discuss the devastating loss of the shuttle and its crew.

"Unbelievable," said Golash, 17.

She and the other students have asked their principal to keep any mention of the shuttle accident "low-key" at school. A moment of silence, she and the others decided, would be the most appropriate way to pay their respects.

"It's very tough. We had such a personal investment in this," Golash said. "But we want to keep the focus on the astronauts, as a tribute to them."

In Israel, the mood was also somber at the Ort technical high school in Kiryat Motzkin, a suburb of the northern port city of Haifa. Students at the school had sent their own experiment with Columbia and had been cheering on their countryman Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.

Students covered desks with black tablecloths and photo collages showing Ramon and the students' work on the project.

The shuttle disaster also destroyed the silkworm experiment of three students from South Central Los Angeles's Dorsey High School, in a poor, violence-plagued area. The students said Sunday they want to continue pursuing careers in science despite the tragedy.

"I told my sister, I want to go to space," said Atiabet Ijan Amabel, 16. "No matter what happens, I know people (can) die but you just tell me to go tomorrow, I'm going."

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry warned school administrators in 93 counties to check school grounds for debris, including roofs, before letting children come to school Monday. At least two school districts in the area where many pieces of wreckage came to rest were closed Monday.

The loss of the shuttle and its crew did not hit nearly as close to home for most students across the country. Some teachers said they and their classes were not even aware that the shuttle was in space until the accident.

Still, at least one grief expert said it's important for any teacher to address the loss of the crew in some way - at the very least, by telling students they are free to voice their thoughts and concerns.

"You do have to spend time finding closure," said Sonja Gibson, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher in Sherman Oaks, Calif., near Los Angeles.

By Martha Irvine

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