Starting today, February 8, educators in Colorado will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Some school staff have already received vaccines. This is a significant step toward supporting the health of teachers and school communities.
But for many teachers, COVID-19’s health impacts have not been limited to the virus itself. Changed routines, isolation, and anxiety mean this pandemic year has posed mental health challenges like no other. And before the pandemic, teachers already had higher-than-average levels of work-related stress, which puts them risk of demoralization and burnout.
My husband teaches high school and many of my friends are elementary and middle school educators. Many teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic have described this as the most challenging time of their careers. The stresses facing teachers are both a public health issue and a challenge to the quality – and future – of education.
Teachers’ mental health and well-being impact student behavior, mental health, and academic performance. Stressful work environments also make it less likely that teachers will remain in the profession – and high rates of turnover can be detrimental to school quality. These challenges have historically been more common in schools that serve lower-income students and more students of color, which frequently have fewer resources. It is critical for policymakers and schools to take steps to support teachers’ mental health.
COVID-19 Brings New Stresses, Constant Change
On March 18, 2020, Gov. Jared Polis ordered a four-week closure of all in-person public and private schools across Colorado. This meant many teachers had to abruptly learn new technology and classroom engagement strategies and quickly adjust curriculum for an online-learning platform.
Some schools eventually moved to hybrid online/in-person models, which required teachers to prepare to teach in-person students, students streaming lessons synchronously, and those streaming lessons asynchronously. This split can make it more difficult for a teacher to give proper attention to all students. Other schools returned in person, which introduced stresses about health and, in some cases, the necessity to alternate between online and in-person teaching due to COVID-related quarantines.
Throughout the year, teachers have pivoted to meet the multiple, frequently changing regulations and recommendations. The lack of stability and constant changes in expectations and protocols contributed to many teachers feeling anxious and stressed.
Many teachers also experienced the added stress of addressing increased concerns from parents, who are in turn dealing with their own pandemic stresses. I have heard of parents directing frustrations about school district policies or at-home learning at teachers, expecting them to provide solutions or mitigate challenges that were often out of their control.
Another challenge: Mask-wearing during in-person sessions and physical separation in virtual classrooms both make it more difficult for teachers to read student facial expressions and identify signs of abuse or neglect such as bruising, changes in behavior, and lack of hygiene. Teachers are mandatory reporters, required to report suspected instances of child abuse and neglect to the local department of social services and/or local law enforcement. From my close educator friends, I have heard feelings of inadequacy and frustration at not being able to fully serve their students, especially those who are learning in unsafe home environments.
Supporting Teachers’ Mental Health by Supporting Their Health
As many districts either return or continue in-person learning, teachers also face difficult decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones. High-risk teachers or teachers with high-risk family members have to weigh whether to teach in-person or, in some cases, take sick leave or leave their roles, as they frequently do not have a choice about whether or not they would prefer to teach in person.
According to a December assessment released by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and the Colorado Education Initiative, in the metro Denver region, 75% of school districts reported that they had sufficient teaching staff overall but only 58% reported they had a sufficient teaching staff able and willing to teach in person. And in the metro Denver, northwest, and southwest regions of the state, 0% of district respondents reported that they have a sufficient number of substitute teachers. In the same December CDE assessment, just 31% of respondents in the southeast part of the state had a sufficient number of substitutes.
New Needs – But Some Perennial Policy Approaches Can Help
The state’s decision to prioritize teachers in its vaccination plan is a meaningful indicator of the significant role teachers played throughout COVID-19 and the importance of in-person learning for children and families, yet many teachers are still in need of additional support. Too often, they have limited options for mitigating workplace stress.
Although data about teachers’ mental health in Colorado are hard to come by, school district and state leaders are paying attention: The December CDE assessment found that 90% of responding districts identify teachers’ mental health as a top priority.
Teacher mental health hotlines are aimed at supporting teacher’s mental health and wellness, but additional, more sustainable teacher mental health supports are needed. Research conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence suggests that teachers with more developed emotional skills and those who work with an administrator with more developed emotional skills tend to experience fewer negative emotions at work. However, many teachers and administrators receive limited or no training in how to manage adults’ social emotional needs. Funding or providing support for these trainings could help.
One approach some schools have taken to focusing on the mental health needs of teachers is the development of an “Emotional Intelligence Charter,” which encourages teachers to be vulnerable about their feelings and the support they may need during and after the pandemic.
Other, more familiar approaches to supporting teachers are also important tools for supporting mental health. Ensuring teachers are paid well and working in positive, supportive environments can support retention and mental health: In Denver, a recent pay increase resulted in increased retention of teachers. And research suggests that school environments play a key role in whether teachers burn out. Supporting teachers through this unprecedented pandemic – by offering them the resources they need to do their jobs effectively; by giving them sufficient time and flexibility to prepare for changes in policies; by providing vaccines and working to create safe school environments; and by ensuring they are compensated fairly – can help boost mental health.
As I watch my husband spend extra hours developing creative strategies for engaging his class, formulating detailed emails to parents, and adapting lesson plans—I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of admiration and gratitude for the sacrifices made by teachers during this pandemic. To my favorite teacher, Stanton, and to all the great Colorado educators: Thank you.
Teachers appreciate the praise they receive from others, but more than positive words of encouragement, they want to be back in the classroom doing what they do best – in a safe and supportive environment.
This is the time to give back to teachers. The more intentional and sensitive the state and districts can be about supporting teacher’s physical, mental health, and emotional needs during the pandemic, the better off our schools, students, and communities will be.
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