Closer Look: A year into COVID pandemic, York County teachers face exhaustion
Editor's Note: This is part of a regular series at The York Dispatch. Throughout the year, Dispatch staffers will delve into a new topic that we believe deserves a Closer Look.
Experienced educators were left feeling like first-year teachers again with the overwhelming responsibilities they took on while teaching through an unprecedented pandemic.
As they near the final months of the school year, several York County teachers described feeling exhausted at the end of each day. Ellen Connelly, who works for the Dallastown Area School District, said in her 29 years of teaching she has never experienced the level of professional exhaustion she feels this year.
Connelly said it hurts her to think about younger teachers, many of whom have children at home, who are giving up time with them because of their added work hours.
"Hopefully they don't think too hard about what they're sacrificing," she said.
Connelly, along with teachers from York Suburban School District and West York School District, said educators are working harder than ever this year. Though the specifics of their work lives differ from district to district, local teachers all described a school year unlike anything they've experienced before and one they hope never to experience again in their careers.
Connelly wakes up about 5:30 a.m. each school day to get ready for work. She goes through her emails while she catches up on the news and finishes a cup of coffee before arriving at school at 7:20 a.m.
Connelly teaches gifted and education services at Dallastown's high school and middle school, which are both in the same building. The district currently operates with secondary students in school four days a week and elementary students in school five days a week.
Depending on her daily schedule, Connelly can teach in-person and fully remote students all in one day. Sometimes, she said, she ends up teaching them at the same time, which is difficult for many teachers to balance.
"It's like dealing with two different classrooms, even though you're seeing them at the same time," Connelly said.
Dallastown Superintendent Joshua Doll said the district originally had remote and in-person students in separate classes, but the demand for remote learning increased when York County's COVID-19 cases rose, making it less practical to separate the periods. Doll acknowledged that the model is "tremendously challenging" for educators.
"They had to totally reinvent their craft," Doll said.
Dallastown teachers for kindergarten through sixth grade either teach exclusively remote students or only in-person students, Connelly said. She said this method can make it difficult for in-person teachers to transition students to fully remote should they have to quarantine.
Many schools, many approaches
Other school districts operate differently. Peter Demerath, an associate professor of education with the University of Minnesota, said with little federal guidance leading into the pandemic, many school districts were on their own to figure out the best strategy for the 2020-21 school year, leading to huge variations in teaching strategies across the country.
"There is no master playbook," he said.
All York Suburban schools operate on a hybrid schedule with students in the classroom two days a week, although the elementary schools are transitioning to a four-day-per-week schedule starting March 1.
York Suburban Middle School English teacher Jamie Evans said students use their remote days to complete independent assignments, which teachers create. He interacts with his remote students on Wednesdays, which are remote days for all students, to work with them individually on things they're struggling with.
Tawn Ketterman, York Suburban's director of elementary education, said some middle school teachers are dedicated to teaching just remote students. Most elementary students complete independent assignments on their remote days, while some high school teachers work with in-person and remote students simultaneously.
Most of Evans' Wednesdays are spent preparing curriculum for the district's cyber academy, Trojan Online Pathways. He said the district pays teachers to write the curriculum for the academy, and most teachers use Wednesdays to complete it.
West York School District teachers also operate under different models depending on their grade level. Superintendent Todd Davies said the high school operates on a hybrid schedule with students in class two days a week, so teachers can separate their remote and in-person students.
The district's middle school and three elementary schools have students in class four days a week. Elementary teachers are dedicated exclusively to either remote or in-person students, Davies said. The middle school is the only school that has teachers teaching both remote and in-person students in the same day, but they are separated into different periods so teachers don't have to teach them at the same time.
Mercedes Myers and Lisa Konopinski, who both teach at the middle school, said they feel fortunate to have their remote students in a separate period this year. They said they would have a harder time keeping track of their students' progress if they had to balance both types at once.
Davies said district officials are working to transition middle school teachers to a different model next school year, which will have them teach both types of students at once, similar to Dallastown's teachers. He said this will allow teachers to return to a more familiar schedule and won't spread them as thin.
Demerath, the university professor, said he expects some of the changes school districts made this year will remain beyond the pandemic, as students and parents demand more choice in their instructional models.
Like Davies, Dallastown's Doll said he plans to continue offering multiple options for students in the future, as many students found success with remote learning.
"I don't think we're ever returning to normal," Doll said.
Teaching from a distance
Safety remains a top concern for teachers across York County. West York district staff worked closely with teachers to develop a safety plan for this school year, and Myers said officials continue to meet with the teachers' union once a week. She said getting students' used to a new learning system was difficult, but she is confident in the plan.
"You can see the time that was put into it," she said.
Konopinski's classroom for seventh and eighth grade math has tape all over the floor to ensure her students stay separated.
For Myers, who teaches family consumer sciences, maintaining safety is an even bigger challenge, as her lessons rely heavily on hands-on experiences. She measured her space to allow two students to work in each of the six kitchen areas in her classroom. She said she makes sure there are sanitizers at every station, which are used every time a student uses the station.
Students are not allowed to collaborate as closely as they normally would, which Konopinski said is difficult for students and teachers. She said students want to talk to their friends in class, or group together in the hallways, but teachers have to remind them not to. For teachers, she said, it's harder to build relationships with their students through the separation — especially with their remote students.
Connelly often works with the same students through their middle school and high school years. But for many teachers who only work with students for a single year, she said, it's more difficult to connect with them, and many teachers worry that they're not noticing their students' emotional needs.
"Most educators met their students through a screen," Connelly said.
In a survey of about 15,000 educators last summer, Demerath said, University of Minnesota researchers found that one of the most common concerns for teachers during the pandemic was that remote learning wouldn't allow them to foster relationships with their students. Though some students "have learned how to learn" on their own through independent assignments, Demerath said many still struggle online.
"Without a relationship, there is often very little learning," he said.
Students across the country are struggling to keep up with regular curriculum through online learning models and frequent school closures. A study by McKinsey & Co. found that while all students fell behind this year, minority groups were the most impacted.
The study found that in the fall, white students were one to three months behind in math, while students of color were three to five months behind. While efforts to improve access to education have increased, Black and Hispanic students are still expected to struggle, as they are more likely to continue in remote learning.
"Left unaddressed, these opportunity gaps will translate into wider achievement gaps," the study read.
Racking up hours
Connelly's school day ends at 3:05 p.m., according to her contract. She usually leaves the building around 3:30 p.m., which is actually earlier than a normal school year, when she said she would leave around 5:30 p.m. But the change is because she brings her laptop home with her, she said, and spends about two hours each night working there.
Konopinski and Myers also said they spend a few hours working from home every night, but Evans said he tries to avoid it if possible. He tried it during the first marking period of the year but found it wasn't good for his mental health. Instead, Evans spends about two hours after the school day in his classroom answering emails, grading assignments and completing other paperwork, he said.
In addition to the school week, all four teachers said, they use each Sunday to map out their lesson plans for the upcoming week, which can take up to four hours or more.
"It's what I call 'pre-Monday,'" Evans said.
Myers estimated her workload doubled this year compared with previous years. Connelly said most teachers take "any time they can steal" to complete their extra work responsibilities while balancing their responsibilities at home.
"I cannot explain how tired I am at the end of every day," Evans said.
The same exhaustion is felt by teachers across the nation. A New York Times report from November interviewed more than a dozen educators, who described facing similar challenges, including the "whiplash" of rapid school closures and openings, and balancing virtual and in-person students all at once.
Experts in the report warned of the consequences of teacher burnout. According to a National Education Association survey, 28% of educators said the COVID-19 pandemic made them more likely to consider leaving their jobs or early retirement.
Close, reopen, close
Dozens of York County schools have temporarily closed at least once this school year because of increased COVID-19 cases in their buildings. The closures have lasted anywhere from a single day to several weeks.
When school district officials decide to close a school, the building usually shuts down to students and staff in less than 24 hours, giving teachers just a handful of hours to gather their resources and help students transition to virtual learning.
"You just have to grab your stuff and go," Myers said.
However, many teachers are prepared to go virtual well before the district notifies them of a closure. Konopinski said teachers monitor their school's COVID-19 cases every day, so most are aware when the school is building toward a closure.
The last time West York Area Middle School closed in late January, Myers said, the principal notified teachers at about 2:30 p.m. The school closed on a Tuesday afternoon, and teachers returned to the classroom that Thursday, while students returned to school a week later the following Thursday. Because Wednesday is a remote learning day for all students, Myers said, teachers returned to their classrooms without missing a day of class time.
Davies said the district partners with an outside contractor to clean school buildings after each school day, and thoroughly clean buildings during a closure. He said they can complete a deep cleaning within 24 hours, allowing teachers to return to school after one day. Davies said that strategy lets teachers maintain consistency in their lessons, with complete access to their resources and fewer distractions.
Evans said it was a similar case for him when York Suburban Middle School closed for a few days in December. Teachers were notified about the closure on a Tuesday afternoon. Teachers remained home Wednesday — also a remote learning day for all students — and returned to the classroom Thursday.
Though the school remained closed for students, Evans said, teachers could remain socially distanced from each other while isolated in their classrooms. The challenging part of the closures, he said, is how to keep his students engaged with virtual learning.
"I'm still figuring that out," Evans said.
For Myers, teaching family consumer science to students virtually means working with each student individually to make sure they have the resources they need to complete their assignments from home. She often sends students kits with ingredients for recipes or sewing supplies, which other staff help her compile, she said.
When students have to quarantine individually, Myers said her teaching method depends on the length of their quarantine. If a student is quarantined longer than 21 days, she sends them a kit. If not, she said she usually works with them to help them make up the work they missed.
Konopinski has an easier time transferring her math classes to a virtual model, but she said it's hard to manage their deadlines when she doesn't know what students are dealing with at home. If a student is sick, she said, she can adjust when their assignments are due, but she doesn't always know when that is the case.
Schools also have to grapple with what to do when a teacher has to quarantine. Staff shortages remain a huge challenge for most school districts, and are another reason schools close temporarily, Connelly said.
Myers said she had to quarantine for one day earlier this year. That day, she said, substitute teachers monitored her classroom while she supervised over Zoom, which she described as "frustrating." Connelly said Dallastown uses a similar process when teachers quarantine.
The emotional toll
Through the piles of extra work teachers have to deal with, Connelly said the one thing that's hard to measure is the emotional toll the year has had on educators. Both Connelly and Myers said the year made them feel like first-year teachers again, with so many new things to learn and no time to adjust.
Teachers are asked to do a lot in a normal school year, and Connelly said it's hard for teachers to feel successful in the current environment. She said she's seen some teachers break down into tears "in times there was no reason to cry."
"We work really hard on not resenting this, because it's no one's fault," Connelly said.
Evans said he learned during the first marking period of the year that he shouldn't take his work home with him. He said he was mentally exhausted, stressed and short-tempered with his family and friends. He realized that he could end up working 24/7 this school year, but it was important to take care of himself.
"I was trying to do the impossible," Evans said.
Myers said she also refrains from answering emails after 4:30 p.m. for her mental health and to spend time with her family. Her husband teaches for Dallastown, and she said her 82-year-old mother used to live with them, and still does occasionally.
Though her mother is healthy, Myers said she takes extra precautions to keep her safe when she's with them. At the start of the pandemic, she said, she would take a shower as soon as she returned home from work. Since then, she's retired that process, but her mother still asks her if she's washed her hands when she gets home.
Connelly's 20-year-old son lives with her and attends his college classes virtually. She said he is doing well with virtual learning, but she frequently thinks about the challenges teachers who are parents to younger children must face.
Connelly said younger students are some of the most vulnerable this year, because they don't understand what a normal year should look like. As the end of the school year nears, she said she is hearing more frequently that students are not feeling as joyful anymore.
"They don't know what they're missing," Connelly said. "When are they going to realize it?"