School & District Management

Easing Teachers’ Anxieties About Returning to School

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 29, 2020 6 min read
Illustration of a woman sitting on a front stoop in slippers and a mask that covers her mouth and nose.

“Pretty nervous.”

That’s how 37-year-old Clare Berke, an English teacher at the District of Columbia’s Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, describes how she’d feel if asked to return to in-person learning as soon as February.

Berke has been watching coronavirus cases rising in the Washington area and thinking about the many students at the magnet school where she teaches who travel on public transportation to get there. That elevates their risk for exposure to COVID-19—and, in turn, the risk to their teachers.

Child care could be problematic too, if her school switched to in-person learning before her children’s school did. That might mean sending her 3-year-old twins and 5-year-old to Ohio or Nebraska to stay with grandparents indefinitely.

Anecdotal and statistical evidence reveals widespread anxiety among teachers over returning to in-person learning.

In a nationwide survey conducted in September 2020 by the Education Week Research Center, only 36 percent of 2,815 K-12 teachers reported feeling safe returning to school before a vaccine is widely distributed. Further, 19 percent of teachers surveyed said they were currently thinking of quitting due to pandemic-related concerns.

Teacher anxiety notwithstanding, public health experts, including those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree: In-person learning is best for students. But it can only happen if enough teachers are willing to return to the classroom.

Here are some of the key things teachers say will influence their attitudes about returning to in-person learning, and strategies some districts have used to allow a safe and less stressful return to the classroom.

Clear Communication of COVID-19 Practices

Simply knowing about the measures districts will implement as part of a return-to-school plan matters to teachers.

The majority of respondents in the EdWeek survey said that being informed by their employers about COVID-19 policies around student mask wearing, social distancing, and testing was “very important” in their decision either to stay at their current job or take another job at a K-12 school that requires in-person teaching. While knowing about a district’s plans to keep its community safe can quell teachers’ anxiety, engaging them in the planning process is even more desirable, say some.

Berke recalls getting a survey from the District of Columbia public schools asking teachers whether or not they would return to school if that were an option. What that survey didn’t offer, she said, was the chance to have a dialogue about it.

“They [the district] didn’t do a lot of work around talking to teachers about what the barriers to returning to in-person learning were for them,” Berke said.

While individual teachers like Berke may feel they’ve had limited input regarding re-opening decisions, several teachers’ unions—including Washington’s—have voiced strong opposition to re-opening, as previously reported by Education Week. Some statewide teachers’ unions have gone so far as to pressure their governors to close schools or set clear benchmarks around the issue.

Some school leaders point to communication as a large part of their strategy to return to in-person learning.

Renee Zoladz, director of human resources at New Trier High School, part of New Trier Township High School District 203 in Northfield, Ill., points to several proactive districtwide communication efforts—including collaborating with local employee unions to identify safety concerns and providing extensive related training to staff throughout the district both in-person and virtually—that helped their school of approximately 4,000 students begin to return safely to in-person learning in early November.

Before winter break, New Trier was at around 25 percent capacity daily and was gradually resuming on-campus life after closing most recently in October when COVID-19 positive numbers in the broader community began to rise.

“Because employees are following these protocols as well as they are, we’re not seeing outbreaks,” Zoladz said. This includes adherence even to protocols that require considerable effort and buy-in.

Free COVID-19 Screening

One such protocol is New Trier’s weekly, self-administered COVID-19 screening for students and employees who plan to be on campus (some remain virtual). After piloting the program with a small number of special education students and staff, a broader rollout began the week of Nov. 8, as the campus fully re-opened.

Participants collect saliva samples at home and return them to drop-off sites on campus for lab screening (a non-diagnostic molecular test) by SafeGuard Screening, LLC. Anyone with a presumptive positive sample is contacted by the district administration and asked to get a PCR test—which detects genetic material of the virus using a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction—and quarantine pending those results, which are generally more accurate.

The school district covers the cost of the screening, about $11 per sample. Currently, 86 percent of students and 74 percent of staff get the voluntary weekly screenings, according to Zoladz.

“It’s been a game changer. In Illinois, as the [COVID-19] numbers were going up in early November, we were staying open,” Zoladz said.

As two approved COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available in the coming weeks, teachers and other school personnel are slated to be among the first “essential workers” to get access in many states.

Child Care Solutions Appeal to Teachers

For some teachers like Berke, child-care concerns trump fears about becoming infected by COVID-19.

Eighty five percent of the more than 200 school district human resources professionals who responded to another Education Week Research Center survey released in October believe that at-home child-care responsibilities during the pandemic could result in teachers choosing to quit their jobs.

Recognizing the child-care predicament some of their employees face, New Trier High School this fall expanded access to onsite daycare for staff members’ children.

Previously, the school offered an on-site child-care facility at a discounted rate to staff members for children up to 5-years-old.

This year, the school added a related service for staff members’ children: supervised Zoom rooms. Free of charge, they provide in-person supervision for elementary-aged students of staff members whose schools remain virtual. When not required to be online for classes, participating children can go to recess in the New Trier gymnasiums.

Small Gestures to Help Diminish Stress

While finite financial resources may limit what districts can do to get buy-in for teachers’ return to the classroom, some feel that even small gestures can make a difference.

Consider the Johnston Community school district in Iowa. Since the fall, it has flip-flopped between hybrid, in-person, and online—its current status. Anthony Spurgetis, the district’s director of human resources, recognizes how challenging this and other aspects of the pandemic have been for teachers.

“There’s not much we can do for our teachers to make this a really enjoyable year. We’re looking for any positive culture wins,” Spurgetis said.

He ticks off several efforts aimed at earning them: relaxing the employee dress code, hiring one long-term substitute for each of the district’s eight buildings, and easing teacher evaluation requirements, among others.

“In any school year, it is important for administrators and supervisors to be empathetic, sympathetic, and supportive of the staff they supervise or serve,” Spurgetis said. “Never has it been more important than this year.”

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