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Teaching in the Pandemic: ‘This Is Not Sustainable’

At Farmington Central Junior High in rural Illinois, classes still start at 8 a.m. But that’s about the only part of the school day that has not changed for Caitlyn Clayton, an eighth-grade English teacher tirelessly toggling between in-person and remote students.

At the start of the school day, Ms. Clayton stands in front of the classroom, reminding her students to properly pull their masks over their noses. Then she delves into a writing lesson, all the while scanning the room for possible virus threats. She stops students from sharing supplies. She keeps her distance when answering their questions. She disinfects the desks between classes.

Then in the afternoon, just as her in-person students head home, Ms. Clayton begins her second day: remote teaching. Sitting in her classroom, she checks in one-on-one via video with eighth graders who have opted for distance learning. To make sure they are not missing out, she spends hours more recording instructional videos that replicate her in-person classroom lessons.

“The days where it’s 13-plus hours at school, you’re just exhausted, hoping to make it to the car at night,” Ms. Clayton said, noting that many of her colleagues feel similarly depleted. “We’re seeing an extreme level of teacher burnout.”

ImageCaitlyn Clayton, an 8th grade English teacher in Farmington, Ill., spends hours after school recording instructional videos for students learning from home.
Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

All this fall, as vehement debates have raged over whether to reopen schools for in-person instruction, teachers have been at the center — often vilified for challenging it, sometimes warmly praised for trying to make it work. But the debate has often missed just how thoroughly the coronavirus has upended learning in the country’s 130,000 schools, and glossed over how emotionally and physically draining pandemic teaching has become for the educators themselves.

In more than a dozen interviews, educators described the immense challenges, and exhaustion, they have faced trying to provide normal schooling for students in pandemic conditions that are anything but normal. Some recounted whiplash experiences of having their schools abruptly open and close, sometimes more than once, because of virus risks or quarantine-driven staff shortages, requiring them to repeatedly switch back and forth between in-person and online teaching.

Others described the stress of having to lead back-to-back group video lessons for remote learners, even as they continued to teach students in person in their classrooms. Some educators said their workloads had doubled.

“I have NEVER been this exhausted,” Sarah Gross, a veteran high school English teacher in New Jersey who is doing hybrid teaching this fall, said in a recent Twitter thread. She added, “This is not sustainable.”

Many teachers said they had also become impromptu social workers for their students, directing them to food banks, acting as grief counselors for those who had family members die of Covid-19, and helping pupils work through their feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation. Often, the teachers said, their concern for their students came at a cost to themselves.

“Teachers are not OK right now,” said Evin Shinn, a literacy coach at a public middle school in Seattle, noting that many teachers were putting students’ pandemic needs above their own well-being. “We have to be building in more spaces for mental health.”

Experts and teachers’ unions are warning of a looming burnout crisis among educators that could lead to a wave of retirements, undermining the fitful effort to resume normal public schooling. In a recent survey by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, 28 percent of educators said the coronavirus had made them more likely to leave teaching or retire early.

That weariness spanned generations. Among the poll respondents, 55 percent of veteran teachers with more than 30 years of experience said they were now considering leaving the profession. So did 20 percent of teachers with less than 10 years’ experience.

“If we keep this up, you’re going to lose an entire generation of not only students but also teachers,” said Shea Martin, an education scholar and facilitator who works with public schools on issues of equity and justice.

Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

A pandemic teacher exodus is not hypothetical. In Minnesota, the number of teachers applying for retirement benefits increased by 35 percent this August and September compared with the same period in 2019. In Pennsylvania, the increase in retirement-benefit applications among school employees, including administrators and bus drivers, was even higher — 60 percent over the same time period.

In a survey in Indiana this fall, 72 percent of school districts said the pandemic had worsened school staffing problems.

“We’ve seen teachers start the school year and then back out because of the workload, or because of the bouncing back and forth” with school openings and closings, said Terry McDaniel, a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute who led the survey.

To express their concerns, unnamed educators have turned to “An Anonymous Teacher Speaks,” a discussion site started last month by Mx. Martin. It has quickly become a collective cry for help, with demoralized teachers saying they felt “defeated,” “overloaded,” “terrified,” “ignored and frustrated” and on the brink of quitting. A few even disclosed having suicidal thoughts.

“I work until midnight each night trying to lock and load all my links, lessons, etc. I never get ahead,” one anonymous educator wrote. “Emails, endless email. Parents blaming me because their kids chose to stay in bed, on phones, on video games instead of doing work.”

Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

Teachers singled out hybrid programs requiring them to instruct in-person and remote students simultaneously as being particularly taxing.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Ms. Gross, a high school English teacher in Lincroft, N.J., teaches cohorts of ninth and 12th graders in her classroom while at the same time instructing other students who are learning from home by video. On Thursdays and Fridays, the second group comes to school while the first group tunes in from home.

She also teaches a third group of students who never come to school because they are doing remote-only learning this fall.

“You’re trying to be two people at once, trying to help the students who are online and the students who are in front of you,” Ms. Gross said, adding that the remote students often can’t hear their peers in the classroom and vice versa.

All the while, she tries to keep one eye on the classroom, making sure her in-person students are wearing masks and maintaining social distance, and the other eye online where remote students often need her help troubleshooting computer and connectivity problems.

“It’s not sustainable,” Ms. Gross said. “That’s the hardest thing to come to grips with for myself and my colleagues.”

Teachers in schools providing remote-only learning said they too were run ragged, though for different reasons.

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In a normal school year, Mircea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher at a Chicago public high school, teaches lab classes where students learn through hands-on experiences, like dissecting the stomachs of birds to examine the plastic trash they have swallowed. With remote-only learning in the Chicago Public Schools this fall, he has had to entirely remake his teaching approach.

Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

But the district’s remote learning schedule, involving a full school day of live group video lessons, he said, was not designed to accommodate the many extra hours teachers like him need to adapt their classroom lessons for online learning. As a result, Mr. Arsenie said, he was spending many evenings and weekends developing virtual labs and other online projects for his students.

“I won’t lie,” he said. “It’s been a challenge.”

But his most strenuous endeavor, he said, is more emotional: summoning the energy every day to project a calming, can-do attitude during live video classes, even when he is worried about his students’ health, home lives and educational progress.

“I’m just exhausted today, trying to maintain a sense of optimism and a sense of normalcy,” Mr. Arsenie said, adding that two of his students had just tested positive for Covid-19. “In the greater context of the pandemic, who cares about photosynthesis?”

With Chicago considering resuming some in-person instruction early next year, Dwayne Reed, a fourth- and fifth-grade social studies teacher in the district, worries that many school children are still experiencing pandemic trauma at home.

“Just the fact that I have to give grades to 9-year-olds right now doesn’t seem morally right,” Mr. Reed said, noting that two of his students’ grandparents recently died of Covid-19.

Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Mr. Reed said the burdens are particularly heavy for educators of color like himself, who teach young Black students keenly attuned to the twin risks of the coronavirus and racial violence.

“You’re so exhausted after one day — after one class,” Mr. Reed said. He added that, at age 28, he has started taking naps out of emotional depletion. “My kids are literally living through the disease of coronavirus and the disease of racism, and they’re experiencing it as 11-year-olds, as 10-year-olds.”

A few weeks ago, he asked teachers on Twitter for suggestions on how to make remote pandemic teaching “more sustainable.” He received 200 responses.

Aware of the widespread burnout and the possibility that it could derail the resumption of regular schooling, many school administrators are regularly checking in with their teachers, urging self-care and offering counseling resources. Some districts have gone even further, giving educators extra time every day — sometimes an entire day every week — for pandemic lesson planning.

In early November, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a Democrat, issued an executive order requiring schools to give teachers 30 minutes of additional prep time every day for remote or hybrid instruction. The order also warned schools in the state against requiring educators to simultaneously teach in-person and remote students.

“Teachers are stretched too thin,” Mr. Walz, a former high school social studies teacher, wrote in the order.

A few additional hours every week could give educators more breathing room. But it will not solve the central problem at the heart of their exhaustion and despair, many say.

“Three years ago, we started to learn how to run from armed intruders,” said Amanda Kaupp, a high school psychology teacher in St. Louis. “Last year we learned how to pack bullet wounds. This year, we’re trying to figure out how to bring back learning in a pandemic.”