How COVID-19 affects educators and operational staff
When we talk about how COVID-19 has affected education, we often focus on the students. We question if K-12 students will fall behind, we mourn the loss of milestones like first dances or graduations, and we wonder if students have access to food and safe housing. These are important things to consider, especially because children and teens are more likely to respond strongly to stressful situations and disruptions in routines.
That said, we also must consider how the closure and reduced operations of schools across the country affect educators and operational staff. Many teachers and hourly workers such as bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, teacher’s assistants, and public safety officers are facing uncertainty, unemployment or reduced hours, and isolation amid the crisis. All of which can affect their livelihood or mental health and impede their abilities to support students.
While children and teens may respond most aggressively to this stressful situation, they tend to react based on the actions of the adults around them, meaning educators and school personnel have an opportunity to positively impact students, but only if they take care of themselves first.
Operational Staff, Reduced Hours, and Unemployment
After a school is forced to shut down or reduce operations, we instinctively think first about the students and then about the educators, but school systems are like small towns. They need hundreds of operational staff, often paid by the hour, to literally keep the lights on.
Due to increasing layoffs and reductions in hours, many school operational staff are being forced to look for new jobs in an increasingly shuttered job market. Others are among the 3.3 million Americans that filed for unemployment last week.
While the recent passage of the stimulus bill may provide some financial relief to hourly workers, isolation, uncertainty, and the removal from productive, meaningful work can also create significant mental health issues. Like educators, operational staff play important, consistent roles in students’ lives, who may be the sought out, caring adult that a student depends on. Without the opportunity for these personal interactions, this loss of culture weighs heavy on everyone. Supporting our educators and operational staff first helps the system during this crisis and will smooth the re-entry process in the future.
Educators, Online Classes, and Emotional Support
During this adverse event, we are still relying on educators to support students. Many of them are delivering online classes for the first time, which comes with its own set of stressors. Educators now have to determine if students have access to the Internet and textbooks. They have to learn how to transition hands-on materials meant for scientific labs, music classes, medical rotations, and design studios to virtual formats. They have to keep students engaged and be prepared to answer questions and concerns about the pandemic.
We tend to expect educators to be there for students and support them not only academically but often emotionally as well. During their extended time at home, students may approach teachers about housing insecurity, food insecurity, or even domestic violence, which is expected to increase in areas with stay-at-home orders. This can increase the potential for educators to develop secondary traumatic stress (STS), which can occur when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.
Moving Forward: A New Normal
During the safety briefing on airplanes, flight attendants always tell you that, in the event of an emergency, you should put your air mask on first before helping others. The same process is true for COVID-19. Our educators and operational staff in K-12 and higher education settings must first take care of their own physical and mental health before they can effectively and sustainably support students both during and after this crisis.
Though many are eager to return to normal routines, the end of the pandemic will not signify the end of heightened stress. Some schools may have to replace educators and operational staff who were forced to find alternative work during the pandemic. Others will continue to face increased stress levels as they attempt to support students transitioning back to school. Many of those students may have experienced loss during the pandemic. Most of them have never spent such an extended period away from the classroom and their school support system.
The transition will require patience, emotional support, and resilience among our educators and school personnel. I appreciate the generosity of education leaders at the state, district, and local levels, who are providing grace and flexibility for our educators during these stressful times. It will be important for our educators and operational staff members to take advantage of these opportunities and take care of themselves. As important as it is for them to be there for students before and during the crisis, we will need them even more so after.