She’s small, pretty, this image of a kind, young high school teacher summoned on my phone screen. She came to Scary Mommy to talk about face-to-face teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she didn’t want to tell tales of crumbling infrastructure (though her school has it) or lack of ventilation (her classroom suffers from that, too).
She wanted to talk about the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on her mental health.
Because she lives in a right-to-work state, governed by what she calls “a culture of fear” about unions, this teacher has to remain anonymous. “They will fire me,” she tells Scary Mommy. She and her colleagues have been specifically threatened with termination if they speak to media.
Teachers Had It Hard Before Face-to-Face Teaching During a Pandemic
She reminds us that teaching was never an easy profession — and this makes face-to-face teaching even more dangerous. We also know that schools have always been a hotbed of germs. “Teachers get weird stuff,” she says — a high school teacher who washes her hands and sanitizes constantly. “I had mono in my mid-thirties.” She once had a kid whose parents sent him to school knowing he had influenza: he had to come if he wanted to play sports that night. He infected several kids in her classroom, including her.
Even without a pandemic, she says, people need to realize that teachers are “sitting in a room with thirty kids for ninety minutes at a time.” In fact, ABC News ranks teaching as “the dirtiest job” when it comes to germs and microbes. Dr. Harley Rotbart, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Colorado and author of the book Germ Proof Your Kid, tells CNN that schools are “germ candy stores” and says that “schools are full of ‘hot zones’ for germs.” They estimate that the average high school student, the demographic this teacher teaches, can be expected to contract three to four colds a year. They are also at high risk for the flu.
Face-to-Face Teaching Scarier With Little Leadership
First, she says, in the early stages of the pandemic, came the doom-scrolling through Reddit, Facebook, The New York Times, The BCC, and The Washington Post. Then came the dawning realization that her school district, and the neighboring ones, had no real plans— they were not told what instruction would look like, either face-to-face or virtual, until the end of July (classes were slated to start mid-August but pushed back). They were not assigned classes until mid-August; the number of students in those classes wasn’t clear until after school started. Even without face-to-face teaching, the stress wore on her with no clear plans, no sense of the future, and “a sense of zero leadership, from the top down.”
But Face-to-Face Teaching Made Everything Worse
“Everything is hard,” she tells Scary Mommy. She talked about everything from her own fears to calling administration on teachers who walk around maskless. “I’ve told on colleagues,” she says. “It’s not something I want to do, but it’s a life-or-death situation.” Administration hasn’t done enough to stop it from happening, she says.
She reports that her anxiety levels have skyrocketed during face-to-face teaching. This isn’t a shock. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers unions in the country, tells NBC, “Teachers are exhausted.” Across the country, teachers report stress and burnout; in Utah, principals say their teachers are “having panic attacks” juggling online and face-to-face teaching, like our teacher is being asked to do.
When asked what exactly she was anxious about, the teacher says first, she’s anxious that she will get COVID — or that her son will get it. “We don’t know the long term effects,” she says. “My kids deserves the same long life as your kid. The fact that a kid needs to come to school to ‘get socialized’ and puts my kid at risk enrages me… I want a say. I want a choice. It doesn’t need to be like this. We have a stake in this, too.”
“I don’t want my son to see me die,” she continues. “I think about that a lot. I thought about it on the way to work today.”
But It’s Not Just The Anxiety
“I’m just tired,” she says. “I’m exhausted. I drink more than I should. Everything is hard, grading is hard, talking to parents is hard. I come home and I can barely parent my own child [from the stress].” The Minnesota Star-Tribune reports that a recent study found teacher stress is so bad that one-third of teachers in the state, who do face-to-face teaching and virtual at the same time, are contemplating quitting.
But the teacher and her colleagues, she says, are careful to do the best job that they can amid the stress and anxiety of face-to-face teaching. They put a on a good face for the students, who she’s very careful to point out are not to blame for this. “We’re acting the entire time,” she says. “I’m putting on a performance the entire day. You stow your personal life. I’m not angry at the kids.”
“I did not sign up to be an infectious disease doctor,” she says. “I did not sign up to risk my life. I would risk my life for a school shooter. But this is not the same as a school shooter. Disease in schools is a choice.”
She Knows What The Critics Say
The criticism when teachers complain, she says, is always there, but it’s become worse during the pandemic. “They say, well, you should get another job. Then who will educate these kids? Where will they come from? We choose to teach. It’s a — I hate this word, it’s overused — it’s a calling. We feel called to do this. I don’t want to miss out on this. I don’t want to miss these experiences.”
She also knows she’s lucky to have a job during the pandemic when so many are unemployed. But she says it’s not true that everyone who works is being asked to risk their life. It’s not the same, she argues, as sitting in a room with the same 30 people, breathing the same air, for 90 minutes, with improper ventilation — a situation most disease experts would agree is high-risk.
Though she has no plans to quit, she can’t help but wonder how long she can survive under the intense strain of it all.
“I love my job,” she says, “but I love my life and my family more.”