Sitting alone in empty classrooms communicating with a screen full of faces, sometimes navigating two or more computers, an additional keyboard, and other technology they’ve learned to juggle overnight, teachers look like they could be directing a mission to Mars. But most days, distance learning feels just a little bit harder.
“My workload, and that of so many other teachers, continues to spiral upward and place a great deal of stress on my ability to do my best as a teacher and a parent,” says Pam Gaddy, a social studies teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Baltimore County, Maryland. “The workload is probably 90 percent more than a typical year, and I’m regularly working from early in the morning to late into the night and throughout the weekend just to keep up.”
As the pandemic persists this fall, many teachers are now adjusting their schedules and lessons to accommodate in-person as well as remote instruction as more schools reopen with hybrid models.
Their efforts are herculean and their working hours grueling — and often uncompensated. Making matters worse, these decisions to pile onto educators’ workloads are being made without teacher input, and without regard to how it impacts them, their students and their families.
“We are working incredibly hard to support our students: helping to address technology issues, assisting students with their time management, trying to form relationships over screens, and even filling the gap in the system’s communications by answering parent questions about reopening plans,” Gaddy says. “The policies and demands on educators keep changing—from the State Superintendent and State Board on down. It’s challenging to keep our focus on our students when we need to adjust to and absorb new and changing directives on what seems like a daily basis.”
ESPs Take on Extra Work
Education Support Professionals (ESPs) are also working in overdrive. From bus drivers to teaching aides to food service workers, ESPs have rolled up their sleeves and pitched in wherever they were needed, delivering meals to students on buses, helping put together learning packets, offering technical support, and making calls to families.
Their workdays continue to expand this fall as schools move from virtual instruction to various hybrid models. Custodians disinfect high touch surfaces multiple times a day and deep clean every night, school nurses take temperatures and manage isolation rooms, and social workers and school psychologists address trauma and growing needs for more mental health support.
Sandra Cunningham, a food service professional in Alabama, says work in the cafeteria has increased exponentially with schools re-opening.
“We have to pre-bag, pre-cut, and wrap food items that we never had to before, which is very time consuming and puts us up against the clock,” she says. “We have a lot more sanitizing of surfaces we usually didn't have to worry about. We have always cleaned register keypads between lunch waves, but now we have harsher cleaners with more frequent cleaning. It has been a challenge.”
Stress and Anxiety on the Rise
Sarah Schofield, president of the Springfield National Education Association in Missouri, is also a full-time elementary teacher. She says educator workload has always been high, but now there is no definition or boundaries around the workday.
She said educators constantly worry about the well-being of their students.
Some students seemed to disappear during closures, highlighting the widespread lack of educational equity. Educators went to great lengths to find out how to help, working to get them digital access and devices or deliver paper learning packets.
But for many students who attend under-resourced schools, and disproportionally for Black and brown students, a lack of technology wasn’t the only obstacle. Educators packed and distributed meals for students and their families so nobody would go hungry, and they called or visited students at home ith social distance to help them cope with the fear, isolation, and loss felt from the coronavirus. They coordinated support for families facing job loss and eviction.
Making matters worse, these decisions to pile onto educators’ workloads are being made without teacher input, and without regard to how it impacts them, their students and their families.
"Teachers, whether seated or virtual, and all support staff are overwhelmed, as it has doubled the workload and preparation at many levels," Schofield told the Springfield News-Leader. "Combine that with our extra duties to maintain the safety of students, colleagues, and our own family, and it adds to an already stressful profession."
Nobody knew that the extraordinary efforts that educators began last spring would continue unabated for months. Now, with no end to the pandemic in sight, they’re burning out.
Says one educator on NEA’s Facebook page: “It will be a miracle if I make it to Thanksgiving.”
When educators express reluctance to return to schools before all safety measures are in place, they’re given few good choices.
For example, in Fairfax, Virginia, educators unwilling to return to in-person instruction because of health and safety concerns are told to take an unpaid Leave of Absence; access leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act for child care reasons and then return to support in-person instruction or take an unpaid Leave of Absence; or to leave their positions altogether by resigning or retiring.
Around the country, many educators have chosen to resign or retire, worsening the teacher shortage and adding to the workload. Those who remain are afraid to call in sick because they don’t want to burden their overworked colleagues, says Gaddy of Baltimore, Maryland.
“We need to do more to keep people safe and supported,” she says. “What we’re asking for is reasonable: adequate safety measures and manageable workloads that let us focus on our students and their success. The sooner we can do this, the sooner we can be back safely in our classrooms and ensure that our students are as successful as possible during this challenging school year.”
NEA continues to work with state and local affiliates to provide guidance, strategy support, and responses to member questions related to health and safety, workload, distance learning, and many other issues.