Estimated read time: 17-18 minutes
Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of stories looking at front-line fatigue among health care and other workers in Utah.
SALT LAKE CITY — "We're all going to die, that's what my parents told me," a kindergartner said to his classmates in a Utah elementary school on the day schools closed because of the pandemic.
Rachel H., who asked that her last name not be published, was a substitute teacher for the class and did her best to calm the students down even in the face of the complete unknown.
She remembers eating lunch in the faculty room around this time and watching then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. When the two-week shutdown turned into months, the school year just kind of stopped and, as a substitute who was not salaried, so did Rachel's income.
"I didn't get fired; my job just kind of stopped existing," she said, adding that she and her husband had to move in with her parents who are over 50 and more at risk for COVID-19.
"It was getting hard financially. At the same time, I'm trying to figure out, do I want to go back into schools? I want to be a full-time teacher someday and there's the career experience and stuff that would be good, but at what cost? How much do I want to keep my family safe?"
As a school psychologist, Natasha Hunt is no stranger to germs. It's not uncommon to have students lick her or spit at her. If she focuses too much on whether they have COVID-19, she knows she will spiral, so she shuts that part down gently and takes the precautions that she can.
But it was also difficult and stressful before returning to in-person classes. Hunt, who works in the Jordan School District, was counseling 80 students when she was suddenly expected to hold services for students remotely. She wasn't able to hand students paper and crayons and have them draw their feelings. They couldn't read stories together or play games as easily.
"A lot of my students didn't get the services they needed. It was so dependent on families to help log on," she said. "I couldn't control the environment ... Sometimes they were so distracted when they were on with me. Sometimes I was suddenly teaching the whole family when I only had permission to work with one kid because of privacy and confidentiality."
English teacher Emily Brown got COVID-19 from an opposing team when she coached basketball last year. Because she already had had to quarantine three or four times because her roommates had been exposed, she had no paid time off and had to write plans for the substitute and sacrifice her pay in order to stay home.
When schools first closed during the beginning of the pandemic and teachers were suddenly expected to transfer all of their teaching and classwork online, Brown felt panicked and described the experience as "pure chaos" for a while.
But mostly, as a teacher at a Title I charter school in Springville, she was worried about the students who were already struggling. How would she make sure they didn't fall through the cracks, especially if they didn't have access to technology?
"There was a lot we were being asked to do. It seemed hopeless, like, 'this is impossible,'" she said.
It's not a surprise that this pressure and stress is impacting the mental health of teachers and staff, said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association.
"Let me tell you, I'm hearing about (these issues) regularly and loudly," and more than ever before, she said.
Teaching in a classroom, especially where people are not wearing masks, places teachers in a position in which they have to risk contracting the virus and bringing it to their loved ones. If they do get sick, younger educators who haven't been able to build up their sick leave time have to face the decision of working without pay or coming to school not feeling well, Matthews said.
She added that she personally knows of two vaccinated leaders in her association who were hospitalized with breakthrough cases. One is still there 20 days later. The other is still carrying around an oxygen container and hasn't been able to go back into the classroom.
"We have to be sure to give them that cushion time," Matthews said.
During the first week of the school year at the elementary school in Alpine School District where Rachel now works as a classroom aide, she was working individually with a second-grader who was coughing and not wearing a mask. On Monday, the teacher told her that he was out with COVID-19.
Classroom aides are not full-time positions, which means they don't get health care benefits. Rachel works as an aide 29 hours a week, and the only reason she is covered is that she is under 26 and still on her parents' insurance. She doesn't get paid sick leave, even for following health care protocols. If she does contract COVID-19 and has to be out, the school can't cover her shift as easily and needs documentation to show that she does in fact have the coronavirus.
Soon two out of four of the second grade teachers contracted COVID-19 and were unable to teach. One managed to get a substitute, but classroom aides like Rachel had to cycle through the other class to cover it while the teacher was quarantined and recovering. Because she has a contracted number of hours, Rachel has to do all the work in the same amount of time no matter how much of it there is.
Rachel gets paid just under $15 an hour, the same pay she could get working food service in some places or at least other jobs that are not so risky or emotionally taxing. So many staff and children are out for weeks at a time, but it's against privacy laws to ask what they have, she explained. If she does find out that she has been exposed, she has to try to find a place to be tested while balancing her job as an aide and her second job as a color guard coach.
Full-time teachers make more than the aides, but in 2020 Business.org ranked Utah as having one of the lowest teacher salaries in the nation, at an average of $50,342, which is 20.1% less than the state's average salary of $63,026.
"People will talk all day about paying us more, but nothing gets done about that. The pandemic absolutely shed a light on how hard the job is, but even then people are like, 'We're grateful for you! Just keep going!' (And don't fix the problem)," Brown said.
She added that the stimulus checks and a bit of a financial boost for teachers was helpful but really just like slapping a Band-Aid on the issue instead of fixing it.
An image has stuck with Brown from when the children were allowed back in schools: Rows and rows of students in the cafeteria with masks pulled down under their chins sitting alone surrounded by big plastic shields to protect students from COVID-19.
"It was almost like prison glass, and teachers were monitoring them closely. They were sitting alone, not talking to anyone. It's a great example of the isolating effects of the pandemic," she said.
There hasn't been a single week of Rachel's color guard rehearsal when everyone has been there, many of which were due to illness, she said. In the "sport of the arts," especially on a competitive level like her team, everyone needs to be moving in complete synchronicity. Her team will "clean" bits of choreography when they will stop at a certain spot in the routine to make sure that everyone is in the correct spots and doing the right movements at the right time. If one person is missing, it makes the whole group look unsynchronized.
As for the second graders she works with, Rachel says they haven't had a normal school year yet and she struggles to get kids caught up when the classrooms are half empty.
With all the upheaval and change, both Brown and Hunt are seeing behavioral challenges among the children. When students do get sick, they are out for a couple weeks and then have to catch up on all the work they miss and fall behind. They miss out on counseling services that could help them.
"I know they were too sick to do anything. I would love to sit with them and cry with them and help them, but I also have to teach them certain content. Now we're both overwhelmed," Brown said. "There's a balance of compassion and the need to progress them, and I always err on side of giving them more time, but I wonder 'What's that going to mean for (my students') future?'"
Hunt has been working with a first grader who has never had to learn to sit in school for long periods of time and will simply run out of the classroom, and sometimes out of the building. She has to follow him and make sure he stays safe.
Her older students are fighting a much more internal battle against depression and anxiety, both pandemic-related and not. They are suddenly not turning things in or only half completing assignments. Some of them are starting to identify their mental illness symptoms, but she's still seeing a lot of meltdowns and anger and numbness from being overwhelmed.
When schools shut down and everyone relied on technology for learning, the economic and social disparity between students became even more apparent. Some had access to computers and the internet. Some didn't. Some had parents that checked on their learning and supplemented what they were taught. Some didn't.
"It became extremely obvious once we were online only. There were some kids who had to do all their work from their phone and then had no service or minutes. Some kids disappeared for months. The ones in stable homes were able to get onto computers for class. Some homes had four kids all sharing the same computer for classes," Brown said.
Now that the students are back in the classroom, Rachel is seeing these situations continue to affect children's education, and she and her co-workers try hard not to let the struggling kids fall through the cracks.
In her second-grade classroom, some students are reading amazingly well and could be doing even more advanced work and some who didn't have as much support at home are having trouble putting together three-letter words. But even the ones who are doing well academically sometimes struggle with the social aspect of school, like sitting still for longer periods of time and not hitting their classmates.
'Sensing a pattern'
Matthews said she has had educators from all over the state reach out about mental illness challenges more than ever before. One of the biggest factors that she has heard is that the teachers and staff don't have the time for self-care and aren't able to spend time with family and doing things that bring them joy.
A recent survey by the RAND Corp. showed that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already existing stress and burnout in teachers, resulting in them being around twice as likely to feel job-related stress and almost three times more likely to become depressed.
Brown said that she feels like she has always been pretty resilient and mentally healthy, but now she just oscillates between extreme anger and frustration and a "deep-seated discontent that's constantly under the surface." Despite her very extroverted nature, she has no energy left for anyone. She's caught in a battle between her mind and her body.
"You wake up, you're exhausted. You go to school, you're even more exhausted. You come home even more exhausted and then have tons of grading," she said. "It's harder to bounce back."
Talking about her co-workers experiencing similar issues, she said, "I'm sensing a pattern. It's not just me for sure. I've had some co-workers that had really serious mental health challenges manifest that surprised them and had to take work off."
On top of all the other challenges, seeing the kids they care about get sick and develop mental health issues and go through all the turmoil of the past 18 months of pandemic panic wears on school staff. Everyone interviewed for the article mentioned having to shut off emotions or set strict personal boundaries outside of school.
"The weird thing is, it feels like you start gaining a little bit of apathy," Rachel H. said. "I have to detach myself trying to feel emotions for them. Inside work, it's really exhausting how much you feel for these kids in all parts of their lives including the pandemic. ... I've always felt very big emotions. Now it's turned to apathy."
She compared the feeling of being left with all the uncertainty and extra work with little support to being left floundering and trying not to drown.
Hunt has to make sure she doesn't take the worry home with her.
"Eventually I have to let that go or it will wear me down. What use can I be if I'm falling into that?" she said.
Schools across the country are experiencing crippling shortages in teachers because of the stress of teaching and working in schools during a pandemic. There are even some schools in the U.S. that have had to close classrooms because they don't have enough teachers. A survey of 2,690 members of the National Education Association conducted in June showed that one-third of members said the pandemic had affected them enough to make them think about leaving the profession earlier than they planned.
According to Matthews, in Utah there has been an uptick in veteran teachers choosing to retire earlier than they planned because of the pandemic stress.
And it's not just the teachers. Both nationally and across Utah there have been shortages in school staff, including aides, reading support specialists, bus drivers, kitchen staff, cleaning staff and many other school staff positions, she explained.
"These positions are so essential to the success of our schools, and in many places their wages are simply not keeping pace with other options," she said.
And those remaining are having to take more sick time than ever because either they or a family member has COVID-19 or some other kind of illness they picked up at school because immune systems have taken a hit from people mostly staying at home — and even a mild cold could become severe with no immune system to tackle it.
Rachel said that there is one aide position that hasn't been filled in second grade, which has meant a lot of rotating to try and fill in the gaps.
"Today, for example, the head teacher was gone, the substitute got sick, and I was the only one in the classroom. I didn't get a lunch break today," she said.
Matthews said that the pressure that comes with the shortage of staff and time is "more acute than I have ever heard."
Although there has long been an issue with school staff shortages, "I've been an educator for over 32 years, and I have not seen the pressure be this strong," she said.
Teachers are stretched by the lack of substitutes and are often left to substitute during the time they should be preparing for their classes or working on professional development. And because of the substitute shortage, many of the substitutes are not actually trained in the subject they are supposed to be teaching.
"It's created an untenable situation that is just not sustainable. Our teachers, our educators, we want to do these reading programs and learn our craft better, but when there isn't the time to be able to support that, it's not effective," she said.
Utah has made national headlines for anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests from parents, including recent news that a dozen anti-mask protesters were charged with disrupting a public meeting. The incident happened on May 4 during a Granite School Board meeting about a statewide mandate for children to have to wear masks in schools.
Although Brown hasn't gotten any angry parents, she has heard stories from co-workers about teachers being caught in the political crossfire surrounding pandemic policy and protocol in schools. The politically charged atmosphere just adds another layer of stress. It becomes a sort of political minefield, trying to navigate around explosive topics.
"Overall, it's just very, very exhausting. A lot of teachers, we're just like, 'Oh my gosh — enough! I just want to do my job.' It has nothing to do with our content and adds 50 to 70 extra hoops to jump through, and those hoops are in flames," she said.
As an English teacher, she tells her students that she's there to help them to form an opinion and argue and discuss topics with them in a civilized manner and in a safe space or the discussion will be shut down, and so far she's been able to walk that fine line.
Rachel said that the schools are trying to be a safe place for a variety of political views and making sure that the families' choices are respected, but those choices sometimes make it not a safe place in terms of public health. She wears a mask even though most of the students don't and ask her why she's wearing one. She finds that she has to put on a different persona at school about public health, which she said shouldn't even be political.
"It's weird having to defend your choices to an 8-year-old, especially while trying to be apolitical," she said. "It's incredibly frustrating and incredibly isolating, in a way. I see teachers out with COVID. I don't even feel like I can ask them how they feel about things. They're under a lot of pressure politically from parents, legislators and the school district, all trying to remain as neutral as possible about issues that no one wants to be neutral about."
Hunt has had parents come to her both because they're upset about mask wearing and because they're concerned that their children will be wearing a mask and might be bullied. She finds that she has to be extremely careful and not engage or respond because she's representing the whole school and staff.
"There are loud voices on both sides. At the school, we just have to fall back on policy," she said.
And this minefield isn't just confined to the school; it's in homes and stores and restaurants and roads.
"It's been difficult to be constantly aware of that. No matter who i'm talking to, I really have to think about what I'm going to say with family, with friends and at the school," Hunt said.
People questioning educators and their expertise creates "a very threatening environment" that is "really causing educators to feel beaten down," Matthews said, adding that turning the volume down on these loud voices that are controlling the narrative about things they don't necessarily understand is necessary to support public education.
"Our kids should not be in the middle of a political minefield. There's science and fact and listening to experts, and there's not. It's important that we find that pathway as a divided nation, state, school district and school to focus on shared values like student success. We want our kids to be safe, healthy and have the best educators possible. In order to do that, we have to stop polarizing," she said.
Matthews explained that all of these pressures combining now has made working in schools so demanding, and she is worried about how long the teachers and the staff can maintain working in these conditions, especially with the increasingly heavy workloads.
"There's only so much you can give. But boy our teachers are strong and they give and give and give. It's just how long can we expect them to keep giving?" she asked.
In spite of the stress and low pay and increased work, Rachel has found that the pandemic has made her even more determined to become a teacher so she can teach her students about bias and evaluating sources.
"I don't think there's anyone who goes into education unless they have a strong conviction that they want to make a difference in the lives of children. Boy, do our kids need us now more than ever. Being able to step up and be a supportive person and create those safe places in our schools right now is so needed," Matthews said.
"It's what many would say we're born to do through the easier times and the harder times."