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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Voices from the Field on School Reopenings: Teacher Stressors and Needed Supports
By Joanne Pfleiderer

Voices from the Field on School Reopenings: Teacher Stressors and Needed Supports

Figuring out how to deal with COVID, working from home, holding Zoom classes, and collaborating in the pandemic environment have put a strain not only on students and families but also on teachers. For most educators, remote learning is a new way of life. They have had to learn different technology systems, change their teaching strategies, and get used to novel ways of interacting with their students.

At a recent meeting of the REL Mid-Atlantic Governing Board, we heard directly from the teachers and principals on the board about the challenges they face and the supports that can help them continue the good work being done. We value the high-level strategic guidance these colleagues provide to help the REL address important issues in education--they are the bridge to help us travel what IES director Mark Schneider has dubbed the "last mile," connecting education research with those who can use it to make a difference in teaching and learning. At the same time, we recognize that their day-to-day routines changed suddenly into a disruptive, emotionally taxing, and anxiety producing situation—placing them often in survival mode.

Effects on the teaching community. After months of uncertainty and adjustments, our board members report that all reopening methods have drawbacks and challenges for educators and students. A hybrid approach allows some in-person engagement while reducing infection risks—but managing remote and in-person instruction simultaneously puts extraordinary demands on teachers.  Fully virtual instruction is easier to manage, with no need to clean and disinfect rooms between classes and less fear of the virus, but in the absence of any in-person interaction, many students are becoming disengaged. And many schools have found themselves switching back and forth between hybrid and fully remote instruction, leading to considerable confusion and uncertainty.

Teachers and principals let us know that they worry about not doing enough to help their students. Concerns about supporting student well-being, engagement and special needs and English language learners keep them up at night. Making sure that all students have equitable resources, time, and attention creates pressure. At the same time, they are not health experts but are often put in positions where they have to make decisions in the domain of health specialists. They also worry about getting sick themselves. And their usual sources of support from co-workers and administrators have weakened. Socialization and camaraderie among colleagues have declined, in part because, to mitigate the spread of infection, educators are reducing the amount of time they spend in the teachers' lounge and other places where they might normally interact informally.

Lightening the load. We heard how schools are finding ways to help teachers and principals cope and adapt. Training in using unfamiliar technology and understanding which platforms work best for different purposes have been instrumental in reducing stress. Asynchronous teacher workdays once a week provide much needed time for planning, grading, and other activities. Going forward, educators see a critical need for training in addressing equity issues to make sure all students have what they need to succeed.

Our Governing Board members underscored the need for balance and consistency in confronting new challenges brought about by the virus. Mental health support can help teachers keep their equilibrium as they grapple with multiple demands. Schools can build time into schedules and encourage self-care such as journaling, yoga, and mindfulness, which have been helpful for some teachers.

Online learning in some form is here to stay. As we adapt to new communication modes, as well as new methods of teaching and assessing, REL Mid-Atlantic stands ready as a partner to serve the evolving needs of the education community in our region.