Utah teachers speak out about frustration, burnout that comes with teaching through a pandemic

Eighth-grade students and their teacher wear masks during their dual-language class at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Monday, Jan. 10. Utah teachers are speaking out about the frustrations and burnout they're experiencing due to teaching through a global pandemic.

Eighth-grade students and their teacher wear masks during their dual-language class at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Monday, Jan. 10. Utah teachers are speaking out about the frustrations and burnout they're experiencing due to teaching through a global pandemic. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — There's no doubt that COVID-19 has substantially impacted people's lives.

It has changed how we work, play, learn, eat and just about every other facet of day-to-day life. Perhaps no one is feeling this burden more than educators, and now Utah teachers are speaking out about the frustrations and burnout they're experiencing due to teaching through a global pandemic.

Some Utah teachers spoke to KSL about being in a situation at work where they say that it's "obvious" their district doesn't care about them and that they're "suffering" and "overworked."

"They're not acknowledging in any way that we matter," an English teacher at Springville High School said.

Frustrations stemming from COVID-19

Since its onset, COVID-19 has provided many obstacles for educators. This has become increasingly evident as of late, as a surge in cases throughout the month of January led some Utah schools to implement Test to Stay protocols before suspending them a day later. Test to Stay required students to test negative before they could attend in-person classes.

Last week, Alpine School District voted to shorten the school day for all elementary and secondary schools by a full hour from Jan. 31 to Feb. 25 before putting the decision on hold a day later. On the same day that Alpine School District reversed their decision, Cache County School District announced that it would be adjusting its school schedule, releasing preschool through high school students 45 minutes earlier than their typical schedule, beginning on Jan. 31.

All of these moves were an effort to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases in schools, "unprecedented" student and staff absenteeism, teacher fatigue brought on by pandemic-related burnout, and a lack of substitute teachers.

"We are still in the middle of a pandemic. These frustrations are not just in Nebo School District but in most school districts, and in most professions, for that matter. Restaurants can't find enough workers, entertainment venues are half full, and retail can't get their shipments," said Lana Hiskey, community relations specialist for Nebo School District in an email to KSL.

Teachers in Nebo School District told KSL that they're being asked several times a week, every week, to fill in for teachers who are sick, sometimes during their own prep periods, which severely inhibits their time to plan lessons for their own classes.

"We get emails, and they're begging for us to use our prep time to make up for sick teachers because there aren't enough subs. We're having to give up our time to be prepared to teach because there are so many people out sick — it's really frustrating," the English teacher said.

"Nebo, like other school districts, has many students missing class due to sickness. Teaching 25 to 200 students a day is already exhausting without having dozens of students missing class in any given week. Our teachers and staff have stepped up to cover each other's classes when a teacher is out sick," Hiskey said.

On top of having to fill in for other teachers due to a shortage of subs, teachers are also taking on more work to ensure that students who are missing school due to sickness aren't falling too far behind.

"It is frustrating because so many students are out of class (and) we're still expected to make sure that they have the content online, so you're essentially asking a lot of teachers to do a double-prep for a class," a second teacher at Springville High School told KSL.

"It's a constant juggling act. I compare it to spinning plates, you know? You're just spinning the plates and trying to keep them balanced while herding cats at the same time," said a third Springville High School teacher.

All of this, compounded with what some Nebo School District teachers describe as an inadequate response to COVID-19 from the district has resulted in low morale among teachers. As of last Tuesday, which is the last time the district updated its COVID-19 dashboard, the total number of reported students and employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 is 641.

"Ever since this omicron variant came out, they've done nothing. That's when I started getting frustrated because there was a noticeable drop in the number of kids showing up to school ... there were staff members who were getting it, it just became frustrating," the third teacher said.

Some teachers have said they are immunocompromised or have family members who are immunocompromised, which only adds to the stress of going to work each and every day.

"We hear anecdotal stories that students who have COVID-19 are still coming to school. Please do not do this," a Jan. 16 email from Nebo School District to parents and families stated.

"For people who have family members who have compromised immune systems, they're being potentially exposed every day they go into work because there's no mask mandate, you've got all of these sick kids coming to your class, your job is a high-risk location where you can get exposed to COVID every day," the third teacher said.

Taking stresses home

All of the teachers who spoke with KSL said they feel like the stress and anxiety induced throughout their workdays are not just left at the doors of the school after work; they were coming home with them and bleeding into their personal lives.

Teachers described feeling stressed, overworked, underappreciated and burned out.

"It has been mentally taxing and there are days when it's like, 'I can't do this anymore.' You just kind of drag yourself to school the next day and figure it out," said a fourth Springville High School teacher.

One teacher said that the situation at their school has even made its way into conversations with their medical provider.

"We all go home feeling defeated and don't want to get up and go the next morning, and I've never felt that way about school — never," the English teacher said.

Along with the anxiety that comes with worrying about contracting COVID-19, teachers talked about how the shortage of subs compounded with the high rates of student and staff absenteeism has led them to take a bigger portion of their work home with them, oftentimes to the point where they're "working for free."

"You take a lot of stuff home so you're working for free a lot when you have to take it home and do it. That's also furstrating," the English teacher said.

Speaking to the sacrifices that teachers have had to make through COVID-19, Hiskey said, "It is heroic to say the least."

How can districts better support teachers?

Teachers who spoke with KSL pointed to district initiatives, such as the one undertaken by Cache County School District where classes are being released 45 minutes early than they typically would be released.

"The students go home and the teachers then have more time to provide support to those students who may have not been at school," said Tim Smith, public information officer for the district, of the reasoning behind the plan.

This plan allows for Cache County School District to keep kids in school while also ensuring "that our teachers have adequate time to prepare and to help students who are absent to catch up on their school work," Smith said.

One of the teachers in the Nebo School District said that at the beginning of the pandemic, Nebo implemented an early-out schedule that was useful for helping teachers get classroom content online for students who were sick, catching up on grading, and also as a time where students who had fallen behind due to missed time could come in and have valuable one-on-one time with their teachers.

"I felt that when we did implement that, that was really helpful for a lot of reasons. It gave us that time to catch up with kids ... it also gave us that time to take a breath and catch up on our own grading," the second Springville teacher said. "With a lot of my colleagues that I've talked with, we thought that that would be a beneficial thing, even temporary."

"I think a modified schedule — it doesn't have to be an hour, even like a half-hour that would just give us that extra time — I think that would be like, 'Oh, OK. They're thinking of us. They're acknowledging that we have a lot on our plate right now, and they're giving us this opportunity to have that time to make sure that we're prepped for everything that we need to be prepped for,'" the second teacher at Springville High School said.

Hiskey said that the superintendent, staff and Nebo School Board of Education have met multiple times to discuss how to help teachers and staff in the district.

"The Nebo School Board of Education approved a one-time, 2% bonus to all our employees," Hiskey said.

At the end of the day, the teachers said they appreciate seeing that the district acknowledges the sacrifices they're having to make, but they want to see action that will lead them to feel safer at school and provide them with more time, in some capacity, to juggle the increasing responsibilities that come with having to sacrifice prep periods to fill in for absent teachers and prepare instructional materials for in-person and online classes.

"All of us teachers love these kids and we want to be in the classroom with them, but we want to do it safely and make sure that we're giving them the quality education," the second Springville teacher said.

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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and tech news.


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