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As Teachers Return To The Classroom During COVID-19, Some Worry About Their Mental Health

Natalie Krebs
Andrea Ward is an eighth grade teacher at Johnston Middle School. She says she's been worried about making sure her students are safe and are getting engaging lessons during COVID-19.

Teaching is already challenging enough without a pandemic shaking up how the classroom operates. As Iowa’s schools start to reopen, many districts are focused on keeping their staff and students safe from COVID-19. But it’s also taking a toll on teachers’ mental health.

Eighth grade language arts teacher Andrea Ward’s classroom looks much different this year.

In her Johnston Middle School classroom, eight tables spaced apart across the room with just two chairs at each. A table full of cleaning products and hand sanitizer is by the door under a list of class rules.

"Where normally I would have a mess of papers and things that I need to get back to students, it's just going to be our sanitizing products," Ward said.

Ward has spent months preparing her classroom to return amid COVID-19, and she said she’s incredibly anxious about it. She motions to a smartwatch on her wrist noting that her heart rate is twice what it normally is.

"Because I'm thinking of all the things that I can't forget, all the things that are going to be completely different this year, which to be honest, is almost everything," she said.

As teachers head back to the classroom, many are facing a growing list of stressors whether that’s keeping students socially distant or engaged through an iPad.

"They're already feeling the stress and the burnout the way that they would at the end of a school year," said Jennifer Ulie-Wells, the executive director of Please, Pass the Love, a Des Moines-based non-profit that focuses on mental health in schools. "So that's not a recipe for success, and we know that that, you know, is probably not going to end well."

Ulie-Wells said she's been doing mental health training for teachers across the state to help them cope with the extra pressure.

Jessie Todd, an instructional mentor at the Johnston Community School District, said she’s really worried about teacher burn out.

"I worry that some people, it might be so hard for them to work in this environment that they might just mentally check out," she said.

Natalie Krebs
A sign at Johnston Middle School reminds students how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Under state rules, the district must offer at least 50 percent of its classes in person.

Todd normally works to support new, inexperienced teachers, but this summer she worked on the district's staff well-being support team. She said she’s really pushing staff to use the district’s free counseling service.

"We're just making it really available, like, hey, it's on the new teacher website, and look, it's in your building. And every instructional coach has the phone number, right on their door, you know, just putting it there," Todd said.

But getting teachers to seek emotional and mental support can be really hard.

"There's stigma associated with getting help," said Chris Wilson, the student well-being coordinator for the Johnston Community School District. "One thing that I've really talked to a lot of people about and then I think for myself personally, is feeling overwhelmed and stressed and anxious right now is your body's normal, natural response to what's going on. It doesn't mean you have a mental health condition."

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Some teachers are reporting feeling overwhelmed and stressed as they navigate between preparing for socially distant in person instruction and online classes.

At the end of July, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced districts in counties with a positivity rate below 15 percent would be required to have at least half their classes in person. This meant some of the state’s districts had to abruptly shift their plans.

This conflict between state and local control has been really hard on teachers, according to Mike Beranek, the president of the Iowa State Education Association.

"They are very concerned about the safety and health of their students and as well as themselves," Beranek said, "and seeing that their own local school board can't make the decisions for their community is very concerning to them."

Last month, the Iowa State Education Association sued the state over its requirements for schools to go online.

Several districts across the state have already announced COVID-19 cases resulting in quickly shifting to virtual learning.

Sarah Valle, a choir teacher at the Davenport Community School District, said her district had initially been looking at starting the school year mostly online. But the state’s requirements mean Valle will have to return full time to the classroom. She worries about an outbreak.

"We're knowingly being put in the situation where we will be exposed -- chances are somebody in my building will be exposed -- when we could be doing it a different way," she said.

Valle, who has taught for 13 years, said this stress has made her not want to go back at all this year.

"If it were feasible for me to not teach this year, I would do it. Not because I don't love it, but I'm just that scared," she said.

But Valle said it’s not feasible to her to take a leave. So she said she’s relying on friends and family for emotional support as she heads back into school this month.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter