Focusing on safety can help schools mitigate teacher stress

A defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic is the haze of uncertainty in which we now live. Are cases rising or falling? Which activities are deemed “safe” for the vaccinated? And now that most U.S. schools have re-opened in person, will they stay open, and can they keep COVID-19 at bay?

This uncertainty has landed heavily on teachers and contributed to teacher stress. For several reasons, the jobs to which they returned in fall 2021 are more challenging than what they faced in the pre-COVID world.

First, at a time in which vaccines remain unapproved for children under 12, and in which many older children remain unvaccinated, teachers worry about students’ health and their own. They recognize that social distancing is at odds with many student-centered teaching techniques, and they don’t want to spend their days as mask enforcers, but they also want to stay safe. In a nationally representative survey of teachers conducted by RAND earlier this year, 16 percent of teachers ranked concern for their own health as their top source of job-related stress, and 17 percent said their top concern was for the health of loved ones at home with high COVID risk.

Second, teachers worry that a rapidly changing COVID situation means they will have to transition students back to hybrid or wholly virtual teaching models if students or staff start getting sick. In the 2021 RAND survey, teachers reported that hybrid teaching models, in which they had to simultaneously teach in-person and online, were the most stressful teaching approach.

Jennifer L. Steele, Associate Professor for the School of Education, American University

Jennifer L. Steele is an Associate Professor for the School of Education at American University. A former elementary and high school teacher, she studies policies that advance equity in P-16 education and the labor market.

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