The Intersection

Supporting Teachers Amid COVID-19

November 20, 2020

Updated April 30, 2021

The Challenge

Many students and educators entered the 2020-2021 school year facing unprecedented changes, such as remote schoolwork, hybrid models, and new safety requirements. As school systems were forced to rapidly pivot to atypical instructional practices, teachers served as the front-line workers of the educational system. Teachers were tasked with implementing new teaching practices to promote student learning while also maximizing student safety and well-being.

The impact of the pandemic and pivot was felt early on by teachers. Within the first month of online learning, teachers described feeling stressed and exhausted as they would have to work longer hours to troubleshoot technology, plan lessons, and respond to emails. Teachers had to handle multi-tasking both at home responsibilities and responsibilities to students. A study done in Louisiana for teachers in early education found that high levels of teachers are experiencing food insecurity and spend their own money on supplies for new routines that the pandemic has introduced. This stress has turned into fear as the pandemic has continued and teachers are being asked to return to the classroom. When Chicago Public Schools began reopening some teachers didn’t return due to lack of guidance regarding the “new normal” of the classrooms, and the district threatened disciplinary measures for teachers that didn’t return.

Time Magazine interviewed several teachers to understand their experiences during the pandemic. Teachers mentioned the lack of training received to teach virtually, the increase in workload, concerns for fellow at-risk teachers, and the learning loss of their students as their top concerns. States, districts, and schools must take steps to support teachers not only for the workforce but for students. Students can sense teachers are struggling which can create more stress for students who have already been impacted negatively during the pandemic, and the teacher-student relationship has taken on even greater importance.

With schools across the country already struggling to fill thousands of vacant teaching jobs, it is essential that states invest in supporting teachers as soon as they possibly can.


State Best Practices

Some states have worked to provide the necessary guidance and resources for teachers as they navigate this pandemic and school reopening.

Testing and Surveillance Programs | Massachusetts provided testing supplies and services at no cost to school districts and schools through a pooled strategy as a screen and surveillance mitigation strategy for COVID-19. Abbott BinaxNOW Rapid Antigen Tests were used for symptomatic students and staff. Schools and districts providing some form of in-person learning or planning to transition to in-person were invited to participate in the program. Vermont implemented a surveillance testing program specifically for school staff through self-administered PCR tests on a voluntary basis. Rhode Island conducted Pre-K-12 testing for students and staff for those with symptoms or close contacts with a COVID-positive person at specified test sites.

Hazard Pay | Michigan allocated about $50 million for hazard pay for teachers. Teachers and support staff are eligible through the Public Act 166 of 2020 for between $250 to $500 in hazard pay if certain criteria are met. This includes spending most of their time working in a brick-and-mortar classroom and spending additional resources (time or financial) to support learning plans of students.

Additional Teaching and Learning Resources | Louisiana created a school improvement library with free virtual instructional workshops for both teachers and school leaders in topics of instruction, environment, and planning. Michigan provided supplementary optional online resources for districts to fill additional gaps that may need to be filled after district resources are used to create curriculum. Specific resources were provided for English Language Learners and special education and in alignment with specific subjects such as  social studies, science, math, ELA, computer science, and art. Pre-recorded webinars were released on online learning topics. Nevada released a Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC) for educators and families to offer a place where professional development tools on a variety of topics would be in one place. A conference in alignment with this initiative was hosted, titled “Learning in the Digital Age.”

Substitute Teacher Flexibility | New York adjusted their substitute teacher policies to expand to those holding a high school diploma despite not having a substitute teacher certificate. There has been a noted substitute teacher shortage identified during the pandemic. School districts like Wake County in North Carolina are taking on additional efforts to recruit substitute teachers as they have seen a decrease in substitute teachers taking assignments.

Mental Health Supports | Maine’s Department of Education expanded the FrontLine WarmLine program phone support service for essential workers to include school staff and educators. The program is staffed by volunteers who are licensed mental health professionals and is available seven days a week for mental health and resiliency support.

Incentivize Return to School | California passed Assembly Bill No. 86 which allows schools to use funding for salaries for in-person educators and support staff. This has allowed certain districts to provide stipends for increased workloads based on titles and pay increases for teachers based on their return date to school. Sweetwater Union High School District in California provided salary increases.


Policy Considerations

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt classrooms across the United States, education and policy stakeholders should aim to address the needs and concerns of educators by ensuring they feel supported to mitigate and prevent teacher burnout.

Reduce Risk of COVID-19 for K-12 Workers | Teachers are willing to return to school if regular COVID-19 testing occurs or the vaccine is widely available. These measures also help reduce in-school infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided specific guidelines for protecting school staff which includes screening, testing, management of sick staff, and education and training.

Communicate Clearly | When releasing information to teachers and staff, stakeholders should aim to provide it in a simple and clear manner. Lack of clear guidance from the state in learning goals and requirements has created uncertainty for educators and districts. To combat this, states should provide districts, teachers, and staff with unified messages through aligned communication.

Provide Quality Remote Professional Learning and Development | Schools must take measures to make sure that teachers are equipped to deliver high quality education in a virtual or remote format. Some districts participated in summer schooling initiatives to provide quality instruction in the fall. It is key that these professional learning opportunities are provided in a remote format and provide a focus for educators on remote learning.

Consider Shifts in School Staffing Models | Teacher shortages could be addressed with new staffing models which include teacher residencies, partnerships between school districts and teacher preparation programs, loan forgiveness programs, and service scholarships. A “Medical Model” could be used to prepare teachers by increasing the number of board-certified teachers who many times outperform their peers. Partnerships between districts and preparation programs allow for better candidates to be produced in line with the needs of districts. Loan forgiveness and service scholarship programs have provided an avenue in the past to attract teachers to the teaching profession and high-need schools. Many teachers in these programs are able to be retained from a longer period than the program requires.

Prioritize Teacher Retention | Teacher shortages during the pandemic have worsened as experienced teachers leave the workforce. It is important that retention of these experienced teachers be prioritized as veteran teachers are essential in adapting the educational system to the changes that need to be implemented post COVID-19. These teachers are also able to serve as mentors to new teachers. Factors that should be considered to increase retention are training initiatives, improved working conditions, and compensation increases where possible.

Provide Mental Health Supports to Educators | Schools must make mental health a priority for both students and staff to allow for relationship-building to occur as schools reopen. Social and Emotional Learning tools can be used to support all stakeholders in a school environment. This can be done with an “Emotional Intelligence Charter” that takes into account the emotions of faculty and staff. Teacher mental health must be an indicator that is taken into consideration during any reopening efforts. Some schools have provided weekly teacher support groups with mental health counselors and “virtual relaxation rooms.”

Relax Substitute Teacher Requirements | As states have experienced substitute teacher shortages, they have changed their substitute teacher requirements to requiring only a high school diploma to a few college credits. Some states have also increased the salary of substitute teachers. Substitute teacher staffing is important as more teachers take sick days or work from home and steps must be taken to increase substitute teacher recruitment.

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