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Teaching during the pandemic: “It’s not sustainable”

At Farmington Central Junior High in rural Illinois, classes still start at 8 a.m., but that’s about the only part of the school day that hasn’t changed for teacher Caitlyn Clayton. of eighth grade English that tirelessly alternates between in-person students and distant students.

At the start of the school day, Ms. Clayton stands in front of the classroom, reminding her students to put their masks on their noses. Then she embarks on a writing lesson, scanning the room for possible virus threats. It prevents students from sharing supplies. She keeps her distance when answering their questions. She disinfects desks between classes.

Then in the afternoon, as her students in person return home, Clayton begins her second day: distance education. Sitting in her classroom, she checks one-on-one by video with eighth grade students who have opted for distance education. To make sure they don’t miss anything, she spends extra hours recording instructional videos that replicate her lessons in person.

“On days when it’s over 1 p.m. at school, you’re just exhausted, hoping to get to the car at night,” Ms. Clayton said, noting that many of her colleagues also feel exhausted. “We are seeing an extreme level of teacher burnout.”

All this fall, as heated debates raged over whether to reopen schools for in-person instruction, teachers have been at the center – often vilified for challenging it, sometimes heartily praised for trying to make it work. . But the debate has often missed how much the coronavirus has upset learning in the country’s 130,000 schools and ignored just how emotionally and physically exhausting teaching about the pandemic has become for educators themselves.

In more than a dozen interviews, educators described the immense challenges and exhaustion they have faced in trying to provide normal schooling for students in pandemic situations who are anything but normal. Some have recounted surging experiences of their schools opening and closing abruptly, sometimes more than once, due to the risk of viruses or staff shortages in quarantine, causing them to switch repeatedly between in-person and online teaching.

Others described the stress of having to conduct consecutive group video lessons for distance learners, even as they continued to teach students in person in their classes. Some educators said their workload doubled.

“I have NEVER been so exhausted,” said Sarah Gross, a former New Jersey high school English teacher who is teaching hybrid this fall, in a recent Twitter thread. She added: “It’s not sustainable.”

Many teachers said they had also become impromptu social workers for their students, directing them to food banks, acting as bereavement counselors for those whose family members have died from Covid-19 and helping them. students overcome feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation. Often, the teachers said, their concern for their students came at a cost to themselves.

“Teachers are not doing well right now,” said Evin Shinn, a literacy coach at a Seattle public college, noting that many teachers put the needs of students in a pandemic ahead of their own well-being. . “We need to create more spaces for mental health.”

Experts and teachers’ unions warn of a looming burnout crisis among educators that could lead to a wave of retirements, undermining the turbulent effort to return to normal public education. In a recent survey by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, 28% of educators said the coronavirus had made them more likely to quit teaching or retire prematurely.

This weariness has spanned generations. Among survey respondents, 55 percent of senior teachers with more than 30 years of experience said they are now considering leaving the profession. Just like 20 percent of teachers with less than 10 years of experience.

“If we continue like this, you are going to lose an entire generation of not only students but also teachers,” said Shea Martin, education specialist and facilitator who works with public schools on equity issues and of justice.

A pandemic exodus of teachers is not hypothetical. In Minnesota, the number of teachers claiming retirement benefits increased 35% in August and September compared to the same period in 2019. In Pennsylvania, the increase in claims for retirement benefits among school employees, including administrators and bus drivers, was even higher – 60 percent over the same period.

In a survey this fall in Indiana, 72% of school districts said the pandemic had exacerbated problems with school personnel.

“We have seen teachers start the school year and then leave because of the workload, or because of the back and forth” with school openings and closings, said Terry McDaniel, teacher of instructional leadership. at Indiana State University in Terre Haute which conducted the investigation.

To voice their concerns, anonymous educators turned to “Anonymous Teacher Speaks,” a discussion site launched last month by Mx. Martin. It quickly became a collective cry for help, with demoralized teachers saying they were “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “terrified”, “ignored and frustrated” and about to stop. A few have even revealed that they have thoughts of suicide.

“I work until midnight every night trying to lock and load all my links, courses, etc. I never get ahead, ”wrote an anonymous educator. “Emails, endless emails. Parents blame me because their kids chose to stay in bed, on the phone, and play video games instead of working. “

Teachers singled out hybrid programs that required them to simultaneously train students in person and remotely as particularly taxing.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Ms Gross, an English teacher at Lincroft High School, NJ, teaches cohorts of 9th and 12th graders in her classroom while instructing other students who learn from home via video. On Thursdays and Fridays, the second group comes to school while the first group listens from home.

She is also teaching a third group of students who never come to school because they are only learning distance this fall.

“You’re trying to be two people at the same time, trying to help the students who are online and the students who are in front of you,” Ms. Gross said, adding that distance students often did not hear their peers. in the classroom and vice versa.

All the while, she tries to keep one eye on the classroom, making sure that her students in person wear masks and maintain social distancing, and the other eye online where distant students often need her. help in solving computer and connectivity problems.

“It’s not sustainable,” Ms. Gross said. “It is the most difficult thing for me and my colleagues to deal with.”

Teachers at schools offering distance learning said they too were in tatters, but for different reasons.

In a typical school year, Mircea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher at a Chicago public high school, teaches lab classes where students learn through hands-on experiences, like dissecting the stomachs of birds to examine the plastic waste they swallowed. With distance learning only in Chicago public schools this fall, he had to completely rethink his approach to teaching.

But the district’s distance learning schedule, comprising a full school day of group video lessons, he said, was not designed to accommodate the many extra hours teachers like him need to accommodate. their classroom courses to online learning. As a result, said Arsenie, he spent many evenings and weekends developing virtual labs and other online projects for his students.

“I won’t lie,” he said. “It has been a challenge.”

But his most strenuous endeavor, he said, is more emotional: harnessing the energy each day to project a calming and vibrant demeanor during live video lessons, even when worried about the health of his children. students, family life and academic progress.

“I’m just exhausted today, trying to maintain a sense of optimism and a sense of normalcy,” Mr. Arsenie said, adding that two of his students had just tested positive for Covid-19. “In the larger context of the pandemic, who cares about photosynthesis?”

As Chicago plans to resume in-person classes early next year, Dwayne Reed, a fourth- and fifth-grade social science teacher in the district, worries that many school children are still experiencing pandemic trauma at the House.

“The mere fact that I have to give grades to 9-year-olds now doesn’t seem morally correct,” Mr Reed said, noting that two of his students’ grandparents recently died from Covid-19.

Mr Reed said the onus was especially heavy on educators of color like himself, who teach young black students who are perfectly sensitive to the twin risks of coronavirus and racial violence.

“You’re so exhausted after a day – after a class,” Mr. Reed said. He added that at 28, he started taking naps out of emotional exhaustion. “My kids are literally going through coronavirus disease and the disease of racism, and they experience it when they are 11, when they are 10.”

A few weeks ago, he asked teachers on Twitter for suggestions on how to make distance education in a pandemic “more sustainable.” He received 200 responses.

Aware of widespread burnout and the possibility it could derail the resumption of regular schooling, many school administrators regularly check in with their teachers, urging them to take care of themselves and offering them consulting resources. Some districts have gone even further, giving educators more time each day – sometimes an entire day each week – to plan lessons on the pandemic.

In early November, Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota, a Democrat, issued an executive order requiring schools to allow teachers an additional 30 minutes of preparation time each day for distance or hybrid education. The order also warned state schools against requiring educators to simultaneously teach students in person and remotely.

“The teachers are too stretched out,” wrote Mr. Walz, a former high school social science teacher.

A few extra hours each week could give educators more leeway. But that won’t solve the central problem at the heart of their exhaustion and hopelessness, many say.

“Three years ago, we started learning to flee armed intruders,” said Amanda Kaupp, a psychology teacher at St. Louis High School. “Last year we learned how to heal gunshot wounds. This year we are trying to figure out how to bring learning back in the event of a pandemic. “

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