(Missouri Independent) – Two minutes into our interview, I counted five yawns as the young teacher from southwest Missouri caught herself, and apologetically assured me that my questions weren’t dull. “I just feel like I am working all the time,” she added. “I don’t know how I am going to keep doing this for the rest of the year.”
When school kicked off this fall, Missouri educators found themselves navigating new terrain. A 17-year teaching veteran went into the year feeling like a first-year teacher all over again. “No matter how well you know your curricular area, everything just had to be adapted virtually.”
According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), 69 percent of the state’s 557 districts and charters have adopted either full virtual or a hybrid blend of remote and in-person instruction. The majority of kids are engaged in some form of virtual learning. And for students in Missouri, this model has mixed results. A physical education instructor in St. Louis County estimated that “about 40 percent of our student body has at least one failing grade right now.”
The online environment presents numerous challenges for both teachers and students. Many kids struggle with attendance, technology, distractions, and a massive screen-based workload. Additionally, at this month’s State Board of Education meeting, DESE reported that one in five students does not have access to the internet. The consulting firm McKinsey predicts COVID-19 related learning loss may “translate into long-term harm for individuals and society.” McKinsey estimates an impact of $110 billion in annual lost earnings for the current K-12 cohort with $98.8 billion due to learning losses and $11.2 billion attributed to increased dropouts.
Because of COVID-19, most teachers are working the equivalent of two jobs. “It is ridiculous how much more I do now this year than I did last year. Preparing for virtual students means that I have to set up at least three different separate systems to monitor them,” explained a teacher from Monett, southwest of Springfield. She uses a combination of a video communication service, an online classroom management tool, and her online curriculum materials. “It’s gotten better, but it’s changing every day. The teaching part has become a little bit more manageable; however, it’s still very stressful to try to keep up with both the seated and virtual students.” She says she wants to pass out when she gets home and wakes up exhausted every day.
A teacher from Springfield says she’s also completely stressed out and exhausted from teaching both online and in the classroom daily. “You could handle one or the other, but the two together is just too much. I’m doing two jobs for the price of one.” Despite her 12-to-14 hour days, she fears significant student learning losses by next year. “I am going at a pace where I am so far behind in my curriculum that I’ll never get through, and I can’t expect the kids to teach themselves.” Other teachers say it’s near impossible to get students to show up online for tutoring.
Kids are stressed too. While most are adept at technology, many are overwhelmed with the virtual model. “We didn’t have an opportunity to teach the kids what the online learning would look like. We just had to throw it at them and let them figure it out. It’s just been really disconnected. And if there’s no one at home to support them, they’re doing nothing.”
Parkway School District in suburban St. Louis County voted this month to allow high school students to return to in-person learning and continue to provide virtual options for families. While that decision should help students catch up academically, this move will double the teachers’ workload. A Parkway teacher calls the hybrid model “the worst of them all.”
DESE unveiled a plan to give teachers access to an online mental health education program paid with CARES Act funds. However, after educators spend all day teaching virtual classes, the last place they want to go for self-care is online. State Board Member Kim Bailey hesitated to criticize the move but said this doesn’t address teachers’ core issues. “If we are just throwing education at them, I can see struggling teachers being frustrated at that.”
Despite juggling the extra duties related to the pandemic and the risk to their health, teachers agonize over the devastating impacts on student learning and well-being. Perhaps it’s time to prioritize Missouri’s educator workforce and demand that state leaders make meaningful investments in teacher pay and mental health support.