David Stewart went to sleep Wednesday night wondering how he would explain the chaos that had transpired in the nation’s capital that day, only 10 miles from Alexandria, Va., where he teaches elementary school.

He decided to let his fourth-graders bring it up, and it didn’t take much to open the floodgates, even over Zoom. Students said they were upset, angry and scared.

“Some talked about how they were sad because they saw on TV that Americans, people who live in this country, are breaking the windows of a government building. How people were walking out of buildings with blood on their faces,” said Stewart, 39.

Stewart thanked each child in turn for sharing, but he was at a loss for words when one student said he and his family had been at the Capitol when the riot broke out. The child said he watched as injured people were wheeled away in ambulances.

“I had to think about the best way to respond to that,” Stewart said. “I found that difficult to speak about.”

Stewart replied that he was sorry the student had seen those things and glad neither he nor his family was injured. Although Stewart wanted to, he did not ask questions, and kept the discussion moving.

Across the country on Thursday, teachers grappled with how to talk to their students about the mob invasion of the Capitol building a day earlier by Trump supporters insisting the president had won an election that he actually lost.

Some teachers spoke explicitly about White privilege, racism and lies put forth by President Trump, who had encouraged protesters to march to Capitol Hill. Some directly addressed the fact that police had come out in force in response to Black Lives Matter protests and were caught completely off guard by White pro-Trump forces.

Others approached the subject more gently, inquiring about students’ emotional and mental health, seeking to check in and see how they were. Many let students guide the discussion, sharing what they knew and asking questions. And some ignored the matter altogether.

In Minneapolis, a network of principals began messaging one another about how to handle the news almost as soon as it happened, said Mary Pat Cumming, principal of the FAIR School. She said everyone agreed the subject should be addressed, but there were differing views on the scope.

“A couple principals said this should stay in social studies,” Cumming said. “Others said this is full-scale — all teachers should be prepared to have these conversations in the morning.”

Cumming urged every teacher at her school to engage in the subject.

“Students will need to process, talk, and share,” she wrote in an email to her staff. “I want to encourage you to think about how you will create space for those discussions.”

On social media, many teachers said they would turn the chaos into a teaching opportunity, even as others vowed to steer clear of anything political. School leaders across the country told their communities that lawlessness was unacceptable, with some seeming to reveal their view of the White House.

“The painful truth is that teachable moments are harder when our children see a lack of moral leadership at the highest levels of government and society,” said Monica E. Goldson, chief executive officer of the Prince George’s County schools, Maryland’s second-largest school system.

In Memphis, Joris Ray, superintendent of Shelby County Schools, wrote on Twitter that his staff would use the riot to “teach the importance of CIVILITY and uphold DEMOCRACY.”

Many shared resources. PBS NewsHour announced that it would hold a public Zoom session on Thursday evening, with a panel of educators answering teachers’ questions and offering guidance on how to discuss the insurrection with students. A guide published by Facing History, a nonprofit group, suggested pointing children to reliable news sources and then asking them to write short reflections on Wednesday’s events. Another, developed by Teaching Tolerance, proposed posing open-ended questions, such as, “What does a just use of power look like?”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, posted a long Twitter thread listing free online lesson plans.

“Students across America are watching,” Weingarten wrote. “You don’t have to be a civics teacher to know that this moment is going to be very difficult for so many educators across the country.”

For schools in and around D.C., the events at the Capitol were almost impossible to ignore.

Christina Wren, a teacher at Capitol Heights Elementary School, said she proceeded carefully with her fifth-graders, letting them know they could take a break rather than participate. All 21 stayed in the Zoom class, and nearly all had things to say or questions to pose, she said.

Some worried the mob would wreak havoc in their area. One girl who was already feeling isolated because of the pandemic feared that the bedlam and the masklessness might somehow make things worse — maybe creating a new obstacle to getting back into school. Other students asked why the rioters seemed to face no immediate consequences for their destruction at the Capitol.

“The idea of consequences is something they really understand at this age,” Wren said.

Then came questions she could not answer: Why, the children asked, was there so much aggression toward the Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer and yet little interference with pro-Trump rioters. “I reassured them those were questions I had myself, but I didn’t have the answers,” she said.

Before the class ended, Wren asked her children to write about how Jan. 6, 2021, might be portrayed 10 years from now in a history book. She played soothing music as the children wrote.

Chris Wade, who is vice principal at KIPP DC Heights Academy, an elementary school just three miles from the Capitol, could hear sirens all day from his Southeast Washington home and knew his students could hear them too.

“Seeing images of people breaching the Capitol building for the first time since the British … and images of nooses and Confederate flags, it is traumatic,” he said. “To move forward with another day of school as if what happened is a normal day would be a disservice to our students and staff.”

The KIPP DC charter network, with students in all grade levels across seven campuses, canceled classes Thursday so staff and students could process the events and receive mental health services if they want. And Wade has been charged with determining how staff will address it with students beginning Friday.

He said there will be activities and discussions, with mental health workers popping in to see if students need to talk. Fourth- graders, for example, will get newspaper photographs and be encouraged to come to their own conclusions of what happened. Overall, he said, the idea is to “give students voice” and “affirm their identity.”

In Jefferson County, Ky., sixth-grade teacher Rashauna Tyson tread lightly on the subject. She knew she needed to address what happened but she is a math teacher and didn’t have much time.

She didn’t talk about race or politics, and instead talked about kindness and how people were being unkind as they rammed through the Capitol.

“My approach was high level to not go so deep to force my views,” said Tyson.

Still, next week she plans to connect the events at the Capitol to a book about the sit-ins during the civil rights movement that her homeroom read earlier this week.

In the small, conservative town of Council Grove, Kan., Tina McIver decided her English classes were not the right place to talk about the events. The town is dominated by Trump supporters, making for a tricky conversation. Given the turmoil that the coronavirus pandemic has created, McIver tries to make her class feel as normal as possible.

On Thursday, she thanked her students for continuing to show up every day, even when school is remote, and for doing their schoolwork. “I want them to know that in a world of chaos, my room (even remotely) can be a place of comfort and calm,” she said in an email.

Brian Reeves approached the subject carefully. He’s a teacher at Farmington High School in Farmington, Mo., an area represented in Congress by Rep. Jason T. Smith, one of the Republicans who objected on Wednesday to certifying the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris as president and vice president.

On Thursday, he taught World Religions, American Government and Early Modern Europe, and brought up what happened at the U.S. Capitol by first posting the legal definition of sedition. Then he played news footage of the events from the Australian Broadcasting Corp., hoping to avoid controversy around U.S. media.

“In a democracy, we must realize there are rules and we must respect those rules,” he told his classes. “We also must realize that words matter and have consequences.”

Reeves said that most of his students had not understood what happened on Wednesday.

“Most of my students had not fully viewed the events and were shocked,” he said. “Most of our community in southeast Missouri voted for Donald Trump. However, not one student spoke up to defend him or his crowd that stormed Congress yesterday.”

In Douglas, Mass., students in Jack Coyne’s eighth-grade civics and government class include both Trump and Biden supporters, he said. On Thursday, he said that some students arrived well-informed about what transpired the day before and others had no idea, or just a vague notion that something “disrespectful” had gone on in the nation’s capital.

He started class with a discussion of the electoral college, and the certification of the results, an abstract subject suddenly filled with drama, and then pivoted to discussion of the riot.

Most kids had the same essential question: “Why did this escalate so far?”

In response, “I brought them back to, ‘Why do these people believe what they’re fighting for?’ ” Coyne said. “I asked them, ‘If you believed this information, would it be alarming for you?’ ”

By the end of the class, he said, everyone was agreed that there was no justification for the actions of the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol.

“I was really impressed,” he said. “We have students who have pretty different ideas who were able to find common ground.”

At Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, Justin Parmenter opened a discussion with his seventh graders with a simple factual explanation of what happened Wednesday, and then showed images from inside the U.S. Capitol. He asked them to tell him one thing they noted and one thing they wondered about.

Their answers included questions about security, about the rioters’ motives, about why they weren’t wearing masks.

“One mentioned that the protesters appeared to be all White, and if it had been Black people doing that a lot of them would have been killed,” he said.

Hunter Hogewood, head of social studies at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School just outside D.C., held Zoom sessions with teachers Wednesday evening and again Thursday morning to share ideas about how to discuss the extraordinary uprising.

“It’s always such a balance between some kids who really want to talk about it — that’s how they process — and some kids who don’t,” he said.

In Hogewood’s comparative religions class, seven or eight of his 38 students chose to take a break, but the others participated in a discussion, expressing frustration and anger, and questioning the stunning lack of security at the Capitol, he said.

Hogewood thought the discussion would last 10 or 15 minutes, followed by the scheduled lesson. But the discussion kept going and the next lesson, on Buddhism, waited for another day.

“This is a historic moment that kids need to process,” he said.

The events unfolded during a virtual afternoon history class at Muskogee High School in Muskogee, Okla. Jack Reavis, who teaches AP U.S. History, got a text from his daughter about an attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and abandoned his plans to teach about McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Instead, he turned on live feeds from the websites of The Washington Post and the New York Times.

Then his daughter sent him another note: an Instagram photo of one of his former students, posing inside a ransacked congressional office. But the students in front of him — about half of whom come from conservative households — reacted with disgust at the mob storming the Capitol. Watching rioters, who were overwhelmingly White, stream effortlessly into the building past police officers stirred a difficult and painful dialogue in the class about race and police brutality. It was a disparity that was too stark for students to ignore, Reavis said.

“It’s hard to refute what they saw,” Reavis said.

donna.stgeorge@washpost.com

hannah.natanson@washpost.com

perry.stein@washpost.com

Valerie Strauss and Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.