The Kaiser Family Foundation found that rates of anxiety and depression have quadrupled during the pandemic, with about 40% of adults in the U.S. reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s up from 10% in the first half of 2019. The impact of the coronavirus on adults showed up in measures of adult mental health and well-being such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.
This comes as no news to anyone who struggled with isolation, job uncertainty, food insecurity, or the generalized social instability the entire nation experienced due to both the pandemic, the national response to the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans, and the insurrection of January 6.
A study by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence defines the toll of the past year on K-12 educators in terms just as stark, especially in comparison to other government employees: a decline in job satisfaction; significantly higher rates of stress, burnout, fatigue, and anxiety; concerns about health and safety related to contracting or spreading coronavirus to their families; and increased number of work hours.
The second volume of the U.S. Department of Education’s Covid-19 Handbook—Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs says, “As schools reopen, it is important to consider that educators and staff will also be returning to school changed. Some will be coping with grief, elevated levels of anxiety, and loss. Many [educators] … may be struggling as they watch the students they serve and care deeply about going through challenging experiences.” Last summer, the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Counselors recommended “psychological triage” for staff as well as students to address the trauma and intense stress of the pandemic.
Dr. Donna Christy, a Prince George’s County school psychologist and president-elect of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, says this isn’t surprising. “When you think about causes of trauma as those events which put you in a position in which you are unable to control your own well-being, I would say the most damaging aspect was that of having to wait and watch news conferences to learn your fate as a public employee, knowing that the people in those positions of power were not only controlling your professional life, but your life itself.”
Throughout the pandemic, MSEA stepped up as Governor Hogan and Superintendent Salmon stumbled to provide the clear guidance and ample support that students, educators, and employees needed in an unprecedented crisis. “Everyone was using student mental health as a talking point to reopen school buildings without any regard for the mental health of our educators who were forced to put themselves, and their families, in grave danger,” Christy adds.
Stacey Cornelius is a behavior analyst in St. Mary’s County. At her school, staff wellness is a priority and the Wellness Wednesdays she facilitates provide an outlet for staff to be seen, heard, valued, respected, and vulnerable. “Our schools need dedicated intentional spaces for staff to talk and not just about school and work,” Cornelius says. “They need to experience that being restorative is building community to strengthen relationships. This process humanizes everyone.”
“Through my healing circles and coaching of educators,” says Robin McNair, a restorative practices coordinator in Prince George’s County, “I learned that educators feel there was no intentional time given to them to unpack their own trauma of coronavirus, the dramatic shift to virtual learning, and the social and political crises. Resilience was expected instead of nurtured when confronted with these unprecedented threats.” Find many free restorative practices resources from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law here.
In Garrett County, Principal Jamie Friend found something humanizing in the way rote professional developments on learning management systems evolved into something even more valuable early in the pandemic. “It’s the best, most collaborative working atmosphere that I’ve ever been involved in. Our need to get lessons to our students brought us closer together as we learned how to do it together. Our students are the better for the relationship-building of the past year.” Across the state, administrators like Friend and specialists like Christy, Cornelius, and McNair are bringing new programs, insights, and opportunities to staff to come together, share, and support one another.
The past year has been filled with questions about our safety, our health, the national political climate, and, critically, about the historic and systemic racism it is taking our country hundreds of years to confront and meaningfully repair. The racially-motivated murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others are changing the way many of us see ourselves and each other.
“I’m passionate about promoting equity-centered capacity building, modeling a restorative philosophy, and nurturing a culture that integrates an inclusive approach to lifelong learning,” says Cornelius. “As a white mother of a Black son, I have an increased responsibility to speak up and out against racism and social injustices. I believe educators have a unique role in leading the charge in ending white supremacy and dismantling systemic racism.
“I know that our voices are powerful and what we say matters. To make progress in the pursuit of racial equity and justice, I must show up in support of our Black colleagues, students, neighbors, and communities,” adds Cornelius. “Indeed, as educators, one of our core beliefs is a commitment to lifelong learning. Who better to be at the forefront in dismantling racism?”
In the NEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) joint project Learning Beyond Covid-19: A Vision for Thriving in Public Education, the country’s two national educators’ unions call for an education system that centers equity and excellence. “Rather than simply returning to ‘normal,’ we are committed to building the public schools our students deserve.”
Like the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, NEA and AFT leaders call for creating new systems where students and educators can thrive. They call for reinvigorating the teaching professions by reimagining instruction, curricula, assessments, and professional development that is grounded in the science of learning and building a teaching corps that is diverse with new pathways and supports that get people in the profession.
“Programs like MSEA’s Aspiring Educators, Early Career Educators, and Praxis Core Prep are part of a new pipeline for diversifying and strengthening the educator force in Maryland,” says Bost. “The Blueprint brings new and different opportunities for career growth for educators, too, including for paraeducators who excel in supporting the smaller-group and targeted instruction post pandemic-classrooms need. Students must see themselves represented in the curriculum and also by who is in front of the whiteboard.”
The health of a school is assessed by the well-being and success of its students and educators. Rebounding from the trauma of the past year—when educators were both lauded and vilified—requires educator self-care and school-based resources to ensure school community resilience. “Educators were left feeling powerless over the past year, watching social media go from ‘as parents we now realize how much you deal with’ at the beginning of quarantine to, ‘these selfish teachers are blocking reopening,’” Donna Christy says. “They seem to have forgotten that everything from mental health to the economy depends on our public education system.”
For Stacey Cornelius, an anonymous climate and culture survey at her school proved invaluable. “After analyzing the survey results, it was obvious that staff were craving true collegial connection and more meaningful administrator interactions,” she says. “I knew that this was the time to focus on our educators because they are carrying a lot, the cycle of trauma is real, and our staff have limited outlets. It is my belief that the faculty and staff in a school building are who set the tone, climate, and culture. If the adults don’t feel calm, healed, safe, and secure then how are they going to show up for kids?”
“I’m proud of how well we filled the void,” says MSEA President Cheryl Bost. “We did that by providing the information and advocacy that members needed—whether at the state or local level, whether through social media, car rallies, or public campaigns for safety and transparency. We knew we needed to supply the critical information and guidance that our members were desperately seeking. Through the worst of the pandemic to the legislative session and school building reopenings, we used our power and influence carefully and wisely to keep educators and students safe. I believe we helped educators feel safer, more secure, and more respected while we were all grappling with the stresses surrounding us from the public health, race, and political crises in our country.
“Our challenge now—individually and collectively—is to take the summer to reflect on what worked, and what we need as educators to bounce back and help our students recover from the trauma, disruption, and challenges of this school year. We can’t bottle up what happened and simply move on,” Bost continues. “We must address the trauma; we must take care of ourselves, our students, and our families. We must keep doing the necessary work of fighting for racial and social justice. And we must continue to have each other’s backs as we did throughout the pandemic—because our union and our profession will only become stronger if we do so.”
MSEA holds its first of several teletown halls during the spring to share updates and answer questions related to coronavirus and its impact on our schools. MSEA publishes its first of more than 20 Coronavirus FAQs, guiding educators through technology skills to ESP-specific issues to taking sick and personal leave
during coronavirus-related closures.
MSEA launches the first Learn More at 4 on Facebook Live, featuring MSEA President Cheryl Bost and General Counsel Kristy Anderson. The weekly live series later morphed to the bi-weekly Educate at 8, included MSEA and NEA experts, state and federal legislators, higher ed leaders, and many others.
George Floyd is murdered in Minneapolis. “My heart and soul are heavy as we grieve yet another Black person killed senselessly by a white police officer,” said MSEA President Cheryl Bost. MSEA and NEA and allied organizations provide resources on racism, hate, trauma, talking about race, and teaching tolerance and acceptance.
As schools close for the school year, MSEA starts the conversation for next school year urging reopening planning committees to ask: Are racial and economic disparities/impacts being considered? Whose conditions are being improved? Whose voices are included?
MSEA launches its How to Be an Anti-Racist Educator series to talk about bias, hidden curriculum, and applying an equity lens to our work. MSEA, the Baltimore Teachers Union, and the Maryland PTA call for a virtual start to the school year to protect student and educator safety. In a letter to Gov. Hogan and Supt. Salmon they wrote: “We must rise above politics and focus on the reality and complexities of safely reopening schools.” MSEA issues, along with the Baltimore Teacher Union and Maryland PTA, a Health and Safety Checklist for Buildings and Workspaces around the most critical health and safety concerns.
President Cheryl Bost formally launches the President’s Council on Safe, Healthy, and Supportive Teaching and Learning Environments.
MSEA launches its Becoming a Trauma-Informed Educator series. MSEA legal and research teams support local coronavirus-related memoranda of understanding to create formal agreements on reopening plans and expectations.
As coronavirus numbers spike, President Cheryl Bost writes a letter to Supt. Salmon stating MSEA’s position that schools remain virtual through the end of the semester: “Let’s work to destress an already stressful situation and, at the state level, declare that schools will remain virtual through, at a minimum, the end of the semester.”
MSEA’s second Racial Social Justice Summit, Meeting the Moment: Becoming a Racial Social Justice Warrior featuring Dr. Cornel West, who told attendees: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
MSEA virtually celebrates the passage of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and the four-year campaign to bring equity and fairness to all Maryland students. The Blueprint addresses many of the inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic and
the struggle for racial justice.