Back-to-school burnout

·16 min read

The general exhaustion hit her first.

Then came the blinding headaches and heart palpitations.

Combined, the symptoms of stress became so unbearable the teacher, a mother of two in Winnipeg whose resumé boasts more than 20 years of experience lesson planning, showed up to her doctor’s office in the spring unsure of how to hang on until the end of June.

It was then she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and handed a frank prescription: put down the red pen and rest.

“(My doctor) actually thinks I might have had a small stroke because of it being so high, so I have a CT scan coming up,” said the educator, who is on indefinite medical leave until her health improves so she can both care for her family and return to work.

“It really was a gong show of a year.”

Between worries about roller-coaster restrictions, academic gaps and COVID-19 itself, persistent anxiety became an all-too-familiar feeling for many involved with Manitoba’s K-12 school system in 2020-21.

It forced some to question their profession or take time away from work to recuperate, including the above teacher who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity. Others waited until summer vacation to completely unplug in an effort to cure burnout.

The start of a new academic year — the third consecutive one to be disrupted by the pandemic — brings about nerves both familiar and new, owing to the threat of the highly infectious delta variant and mixed research on infection outcomes for unvaccinated youth.

At the same time, Labour Day marks a season of renewal. And while the upcoming first day of school is not the fresh start anyone had hoped for, it’s a reset in its own right.

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Students, school staff, and families are putting their faith in the province’s promise of a “near-normal” return, growing vaccine uptake and that lessons learned last year will remain top of mind to ensure classes can resume with few interruptions this fall.

The department of education’s list of COVID-19 learnings, which was compiled one year into the pandemic with input from stakeholders, recognizes the digital divide undermined schooling, parents struggled to access information about changes, and mental health needs to be at the “forefront of planning for the school community.”

“The pandemic is not just about the infectious disease. It’s about our social well-being. Our economic well-being and our health,” said Cynthia Carr, epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc. in Winnipeg.

“We talk about how early intervention saves lives and so, as early as possible, we need to assess what the impact of the last 18 months has been (on students) and how to move forward. That’s a high order for our school system.”

When it comes to preventing the spread of delta in schools, Carr said she hopes one of the main learnings from 2020-21 is that it is crucial to consistently apply an abundance of strong mitigation measures to stop spread within schools and prevent shutdowns.

Public health precautions initially enacted in classrooms this time last year strengthened as rates of community transmission spiked. Two metres of physical distancing, for instance, was deemed optional on the first day of school and later mandated — sparking a massive redesign of schools just over a month after students returned.

While acknowledging the pandemic remains an ever-evolving situation, Carr said there are proactive precautions proven to limit the spread of delta and they should all be strictly enforced to keep students and staff safe.

Among those measures: vaccination, persistent mask-wearing indoors, staying home when sick, frequent fresh air exchange in buildings, ongoing testing with quick turnaround times, and an effective contact tracing system that takes into account how schools operate.

Public health experts and parents alike have welcomed recent provincial announcements to mandate masks for all students and require school staff to either be fully immunized or get tested multiple times per week to work.

Matthew Cornelisse, a father of two in Oakbank, is among those who felt relief, but he wants further reassurance that mask-wearing will be mandated even when students are sitting at their desks.

“My kids are so young, but they’ve understood they need to be cautious, mainly to protect their grandparents and they love their grandparents so they were happy with that. Now, they’ve been doing it for so long that they just understand how to wear a mask, to wash hands, to do all these things to keep safe and they’re fine with it,” said Cornelisse, whose children will start Grade 3 and 5 next week.

Neither he nor his wife, who is a teacher, are satisfied with current plans at their kids’ elementary school to ensure masks are worn on school buses and in hallways while allowing face covering breaks when children are seated in class. Meantime, desks are not required to be two metres apart this fall.

Cornelisse said his anxieties about back-to-school season are heightened because of all the research he has done into delta infections and the fact children born after 2009 are not yet eligible to get vaccinated. “I love my kids. I don’t want them getting sick,” he added.

Manitoba’s latest modelling suggests local intensive care units could be overrun again this fall even though three-quarters of the eligible population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Children’s Hospital is currently preparing for a surge in virus-related admissions because the fourth wave is anticipated to primarily impact the unvaccinated.

The threat delta poses to children, which is not yet fully understood, and skepticism about the province’s transparency in reporting cases and outbreaks in schools has mother Anna Weier set on homeschooling her five-year-old.

More than 4,600 cases, approximately 80 per cent of which involved students, were connected to schools in 2020-21. Upwards of 550 schools had at least two cases between September and June. Additionally, six outbreaks — which signal a minimum of two epi-linked cases in a school — were declared at the discretion of public health officials.

Throughout the year, parents across the province expressed ongoing concerns about lags in reporting, gaps on the province’s COVID-19 school dashboard and confusion about the definition of an outbreak.

Crowdsourcing efforts got underway on social media to help an anonymous parent start to collect and make public exposure letters, as a result. The province’s map often conflicted with the case totals included in the collaborative document.

“It makes it even scarier sending a kid to school feeling that the information coming to you to make safety decisions is not provided in a helpful way or clear,” said Weier, who lives in the province’s largest school division.

Accurate and transparent case reporting, detailed information about ventilation upgrades, and an option to participate in remote learning would go a long way in making families feel comfortable about sending their kids to school, said the Winnipeg mother.

Ultimately, Weier is not confident lessons have been learned from the chaotic 2020-21 school year, during which she watched from afar because she kept her daughter home from kindergarten — as many families did last year. In fact, annual nursery school and kindergarten enrolment dropped by 44 and eight per cent, respectively, during the pandemic.

For now, Weier said play-based learning with her parents, outdoor hangouts with other homeschoolers, and “playing school” at home is how her daughter will spend Grade 1.

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Whether a case resulted in a single classroom receiving an exposure letter from public health or in sending hundreds of students home for remote learning, every positive test had a lasting impact on a school community.

The dreaded letter, often outfitted with Manitoba Public Health letterhead, raised pulses. The logistics of having to self-isolate, as well as concerns about physical and mental health stemming from exposures had serious consequences for families.

Principal Rex Ferguson-Baird said the most challenging parts of his job last year included contact tracing and having to pick up the phone to call a parent at work to inform them their child had to go home because of a runny nose.

The boss at Brooklands School spent much of his time checking in with students, staff and parents to build trust and understanding around public health protocols and classroom safety in the K-5 building. At one point in January, there was so much COVID-19-related anxiety in the community that school attendance dropped by nearly 50 per cent.

Ferguson-Baird, who calls 2020-21 the most stressful year of all 20 he has worked as a school administrator, said the pandemic’s impact on teacher mental health is undeniable.

(The introduction of Bill 64 (Education Modernization Act) only added to the stress school staff were under in 2020-21 year since the legislation — which the province recently announced will be scrapped after months of teacher, trustee and parent protest — aimed to replace elected school boards with a centralized government authority.)

He said it has forced frank conversations in and amongst school communities about mental health and well-being. “It’s almost like a cultural shift has been the acceptance that it’s OK not to be OK,” added Ferguson-Baird.

The Free Press filed freedom of information requests with Winnipeg-area school divisions halfway through the summer to get a sense of the pandemic’s impact on staffing.

It was during the third wave that schools began to shutter because of rising case counts and related teacher shortages. The province later directed entire regions to move to remote learning, which is how tens of thousands of students in Winnipeg finished the school year.

Data from Pembina Trails shows more teachers, educational assistants and principals quit or retired last year in comparison to 2018-19, the last academic year that was not interrupted by COVID-19. The number of annual teacher resignations in the division doubled, from six to 12.

In St. James-Assiniboia, teacher and educational assistant retirements nearly doubled. Educational assistant sick leaves that were more than two-weeks long in the division also shot up, by 90 per cent.

Most notable in River East Transcona is that support staff leaves in 2020-21 spiked by more than 60 per cent.

The protection of vaccines and a mask mandate, in addition to a year’s experience of pandemic teaching have educators feeling more confident about the upcoming school year than they did last year, said Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

Martindale, however, said efforts need to be made to ensure burnout does not become the norm again. With so much more piled on educators’ plates, something needs to be taken off to alleviate stress, he said, adding now is not the time for divisions to be piloting new projects and increasing workloads in other ways.

A team of researchers at the University of Winnipeg studying teacher stress amid schooling disruptions has found professional learning opportunities, exercise and well-being activities, and support from administrators, colleagues, family and friends have been key to help teachers de-stress.

Giving teachers and parents adequate planning time before schools suddenly move to remote learning, should such a transition be required in 2021-22, would also alleviate panic, said Shannon Moore, an assistant professor of education at the University of Manitoba who surveyed teachers on remote learning experiences earlier this year.

“Teachers need to be given time and professional development to transition to the online environment. The pedagogies required online are completely different than they are in face-to-face classrooms,” said Moore.

The province’s decision to announce a shift to remote learning in the afternoon on Mother’s Day sparked widespread backlash. While politicians suggested teachers were given several days to plan, many educators had to cancel celebrations to prepare schoolwork to send home with students the following day.

Moore’s other critiques of how remote learning was handled last year include the fact discussions about student privacy, techno-ethics and digital literacy were absent.

Teachers and students should be aware of the privacy implications of using free EdTech programs, she said, adding there should also be mutual understanding established about practices of screenshotting, recording and link-sharing.

The U of M researcher added the province needs to pause and think critically about its plans to expand remote learning in the future given there is no concrete evidence it is both cost effective and yields academic success.

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As Kimberley Peters sorted through markers and duotangs on a recent summer morning, she could not help but feel giddy about her September routine: welcoming students back to École Julie-Riel.

“It’s my favourite time of year. It’s full of hope and opportunity, and the kids are excited to come back and see their friends,” said the Grade 5 teacher.

A bottle of hand sanitizer and desks spaced as far apart as the dimensions of Room 22 allow are reminders this is not quite the normal back-to-school season so many had hoped for.

But Peters’ outlook on 2021-22 makes listeners forget she is preparing to teach a classroom of unvaccinated students who are entering a third consecutive academic year affected by COVID-19. Her students will inevitably need extra support to address the pandemic’s impact on their well-being and learning.

COVID-19 learning loss and recovery learning have become buzz phrases over the last 18 months. The terms have become controversial since critics claim it is unfair to compare academic progress during a pandemic with progress in years past, and argue the phrases do not recognize the new skills, such as adaptability and resilience, that students have honed because of unprecedented challenges.

Limited in-person instruction time, the policing of public health measures and increased staff and student sick days contributed to the inability for teachers to get through their pre-pandemic lesson plans. End-of-year remote learning disruptions added on to the annual summer learning loss phenomenon and have prompted worry about disengagement.

A study out of the University of Alberta concluded that students in Grade 3 and under experienced the greatest learning loss — on average, between six and eight months of reading skills — after the initial pandemic disruptions at the end of 2019-20.

Researcher George Georgiou said the youngest learners have struggled most with reading, writing and arithmetic because they are not yet independent learners and require support to build foundational skills.

Georgiou, a professor of education psychology in Edmonton who is the sole Canadian researcher studying recovery literacy learning, is a proponent of frequent assessment to measure gaps and student progress.

“(Learning loss) is a concern if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “The implementation of evidence-based interventions can make miracles and no matter what disruptions we have or what COVID will bring us or what the situation will be, if we have best practices in our classrooms, we have nothing to be worried about.”

Alberta’s education department has provided divisions with recommended assessment methods and intervention programs that have successful track records, said the researcher, adding that Manitoba should follow suit.

No matter where students are at when they arrive, Peters said it’s her job as a teacher to do what she does best and meet them where they are at.

“Like a relay race, I do it every year — I talk to my colleague in Grade 4: ‘What did you cover, what are the gaps, what do I need to do?’ I grab that baton and I continue running and I take them as far as I can, and then I meet with the Grade 6 teacher and say, ‘This is where I got them,’” she added.

The experienced educator’s motto is that only so many things are in her control — opening windows year-round to improve circulation in her classroom, for instance — and that she will not lose sleep over what she cannot control.

Knowing Peters has a full year of pandemic teaching experience under her belt, trusting in her teaching abilities and collaborating with supportive colleagues has also given her confidence heading into 2021-22. What Peters calls “a self-imposed media blackout” over the summer break, during which she took advantage of the Prairie sunshine and spent downtime with family and friends, also helped her recharge.

“We could spend forever thinking about the ‘what ifs.’ We don’t know what those are with the variants and all those things. We can’t predict the future, but we’ve got to go in with hope or there’s no point,” said Peters.

Grade 10 students Jean-Pierre Ngegba and Stephanie Alekwe echoed that optimism as the friends discussed their feelings about returning to school now they have both received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Jean-Pierre’s back-to-school shopping included a purchase of a new athletic Under Armour mask in the hopes he will be able to use it to play basketball and participate in intramurals. Stephanie is crossing her fingers that their high school’s debate club can resume in-person.

“I’m excited to see the opportunities that come with this year. I’m hoping for the best, but ready for the worst, too,” said Stephanie.

The 15-year-olds said they are looking forward to going back to school while bracing for another unpredictable year, which they plan to tackle with support from each other and the rest of their social circle, and by taking an abundance of study breaks to decompress.

Jean-Pierre said he will continue to bring positivity to his friends and be there for them whenever they need, via Instagram, Snapchat or FaceTime.

On the prospect of 2021-22, he added, “Us learning is the only certainty.”

The back-to-school preparation bustle across the province has quieted this year as teachers have decided to come in later than usual to set up classrooms at Brooklands School and elsewhere. Many leaders encouraged staff to take their summer breaks seriously in recognition of how challenging last year was for all involved.

Ferguson-Baird admits he has had to “dig deep” to get hyped up for 2021-22.

Returning to Brooklands after the break and being greeted by energetic kids in the neighbourhood — “Hey, Mr. F-B!” — was much-needed, he said.

“Kids are excited to come back to school. Parents are excited to have their kids come to school. I’m hoping that the staff are excited and we can grab onto all that joy and excitement,” added Ferguson-Baird.

“We get a fresh start every September, and that fresh start is for everybody.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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