'Pandemic means trauma': That's especially true for the worried heroes who teach our children

·5 min read

Not so long ago, we talked a lot about the heroes among us.

This was just last year, after COVID had driven so many of us into isolation and we were months away from a lifesaving vaccine. We readily acknowledged the courage of others: Medical workers who risked their lives as hospitals flooded with dying COVID patients. Grocery store employees who continued to stock shelves with food and goods delivered by truckers who drove through the night. Delivery workers who kept our pantries full and restaurants open.

And teachers. My goodness, the teachers. So many conversations about how we’d had no idea how hard they worked until parents tried to supervise their children’s remote learning while juggling the daily slog of home and jobs.

More Opinion: Get a daily roundup of our best columns in your inbox

Never had I seen so many headlines and social media posts heralding teachers and bemoaning their low pay.

Afraid, stressed and suffering

After more than two years of COVID, this is now the pandemic of the unvaccinated. Those of us who have done all that we can to keep ourselves and others safe are angry at those who won’t. What started as jubilance over the promise of a vaccine has devolved into a mounting fear that this pandemic will never end.

We are lashing out, and teachers, in particular, are easy marks. Tensions are increasing between parents and administrators who want children in school and teachers who worry about their own safety, and the well-being of their students.

This is not to disparage parents who are on their last nerve. All four of our grown children in this family are parents with careers and school-age children; two children are still in daycare. Much of my current worrying during this pandemic swirls around the well-being of these people I love. I have never seen our kids so stressed.

Our kids' mental health is suffering. And America's schools aren't ready to help.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters participate in a car caravan around City Hall on Jan. 10, 2022, to protest against in-person learning in public schools.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters participate in a car caravan around City Hall on Jan. 10, 2022, to protest against in-person learning in public schools.

But teachers are suffering, too, and months of ever-changing demands by parents and administrators have left them feeling raw and under attack. Earlier this week on my public Facebook wall, I invited teachers to share how they’re doing. Hundreds have replied, through comments on the site and in emails.

I have read every public post and private email so far, and I am struck by how many want to remain anonymous. They fear retribution from administrators and parents. But I do want to share the voices of a few educators whose stories echo so many of the ones I've been reading.

A common refrain: “I’m scared to get Covid," a high school teacher wrote to me. "But I can’t afford to quit because I’m on a teacher salary and buried under a mound of student debt for this job that I’m afraid to go to.”

Another frequent topic was how ill-prepared schools are to operate amid a pandemic. A recently retired principal, who didn't want to be identified to avoid offending parents, explained: “It is easier for the teachers if the kids are in school. Zooming is a nightmare: tech glitches, kids not paying attention, on top of the fact that kids learn better when they are in school. But conditions aren’t safe. Everyone is getting Covid. ... You can’t trust the parents to be safe. You don’t know who they’re around or if they’re even taking it seriously.”

Pre-schoolers are at special risk, wrote Amy Fischer, a teacher at Music School Settlement in Cleveland: “Children come to us as four- and five-year-olds when in reality they are barely out of the toddler stage of social emotional growth. They have oftentimes been shown things that are too much for their emotions to handle.”

“Pandemic means trauma,” she said, regardless of a family’s circumstances. “Everyone has been affected.”

Holly Schurr teaches elementary school band and orchestra to hundreds of students in Tucson, Arizona. “I am lucky that my district requires masks. However, as you can imagine, it's impossible to play a band instrument while wearing a mask. So, I see quite a number of students every day who do not wear masks during my class. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and this situation obviously does not help that, but I don't see any other way around it. I have to keep working.

“This year, my students are very much behind where we normally are at this point in the school year. Because they have not been in school for a year, (we were mostly remote last year) they have forgotten how to be in school and did not receive any music education last year…I feel like I am not as good a teacher as I used to be, which is silly. I'm still a good teacher; I am just dealing with circumstances that nobody had planned on.”

Teachers, real people, heroes

Remember when you were a kid, and how it felt when you ran into one of your teachers outside of school? For most of us, it was awkward, seeing them at the grocery or inside a department store. For me, it was even worse when my mom would talk to them as if they were just another neighbor. Did she not know this was Mrs. Norton? Miss Candela?

When we are young, most of us imagined our teachers as having one-dimensional lives, bracketed by our needs. Certainly, today's children see them this way, too. The best teachers have a gift for making their students believe they exist only for them. Sometimes, though, it feels as if we adults are returning to that limited view of the people we entrust with the children of our country.

Teachers are hurting right now. They want to be safe, yes, and they should be. But let us never forget the teachers who are warriors for the children we love.

Heroes, we called them, not so long ago.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA TODAY. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, "The Daughters of Erietown," is a New York Times bestseller. Reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Teachers struggle with mental health as COVID drags on

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting