Utah principals say teachers are crying, having panic attacks under COVID-19 workload

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student makes his way to the back of the school at Canyon View Elementary in Canyons School District on Monday, August 24, 2020. Teachers in the district — as well as elsewhere in the state — say they're feeling overwhelmed with the demands on instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One principal said she’s had to convince several of her teachers not to quit. Another said that each day, a few come to her office in tears.

A third said one of his educators collapsed from a panic attack while trying to talk to him about having too much on her plate, and he had to call for emergency help.

“This year, I’ve had more teachers on the verge of a nervous breakdown than ever before,” added Brian McGill, the principal at Alta High School in Sandy.

More administrators lined up behind him to talk Tuesday night during the Canyons School District board meeting. Each one took a turn at the podium to share similar stories about the impact that instructing during the COVID-19 pandemic has had on staff — particularly on their mental health.

Teachers, they explained, are trying to balance both in-person and remote classes this fall, while also trying to accommodate the growing list of students ordered to stay home on quarantine. It’s really like three jobs now, one principal added. And it’s left many burnt out one month into schools reopening.

Principal Tom Sherwood at Brighton High said he’s seen classroom lights still on at his school until 11 p.m., with educators working on online lesson plans and grading papers late into the night. Molly Hart at Albion Middle School said she knows of staff who have been putting in 12 or more hours of overtime every week; and she can see on their faces the toll it’s taking.

McGill read an email from one of his educators at Alta High, who wrote to him: “It is overwhelming and infuriating, and I am very close to quitting.”

Shaking his head, the principal commented, “We’ve been so worried about the mental and social health of our students.” In fact, that’s largely what pushed the state to encourage schools to welcome kids back face-to-face.

"But I feel like right now,” he said, “we need to reprioritize our teachers.”

‘We’ve got to help them’

Educator exhaustion is not just happening in Canyons School District, either. Districts across the most impacted areas of Utah, mainly Salt Lake County and Utah County, have similarly reported that teachers are feeling trampled by the demands of this unusual school year, which have increased as the virus has spread.

Jordan School District board member Janice Voorhies, a retired teacher, said last week that as nearly 700 students there have been quarantined, she feared educators were being spread too thin and hitting their limits.

“What are we doing to protect them?” she asked. “What about their health?”

Several in the small, socially distanced audience clapped. And the district later voted to allocate $250,000 for aides who can help high school teachers, in particular, get through the workload.

Meanwhile, in response to concerns there, Canyons School District decided to change over to a four-day school week starting Oct. 5. The shift will give teachers every Friday to do prep work for their classes. The extra time will be a “a great reset,” Sherwood said.

Additionally, Davis School District intended to transition from a hybrid schedule, where students were alternating coming in person and working online, to a regular school week in its junior high and high schools. But the board pulled back after teachers raised concerns about the virus.

Both Canyons and Jordan’s school boards called their reforms just a start to addressing the bigger mental health issue for teachers during the pandemic. After dealing with the physical concerns of the virus — buying masks and installing Plexiglas shields — the emotional impact and extra work were issues board members say they didn’t really know to expect.

Paula Logan, the principal at Butler Middle School, said she’s had several teachers come to her, crying and wanting to walk out in frustration. She said she’s been able to talk many into returning just one more day in the hope that it will get better.

She doesn’t know how long that will work.

Before school started, at least 79 teachers across Salt Lake County quit or retired because of COVID-19 concerns. And Logan now worries that more may do so before the end of the first semester because of the juggling act they’re being asked to do in the classroom.

“Emotionally, they’re at their end,” she added. “Our current scenario is not one in which we thrive.”

Teachers in high schools and junior highs are instructing up to eight classes and some may have more than 300 students.

McGill at Alta High, which this week moved to all online courses, temporarily, after an outbreak, said it became impossible for teachers to respond to all of their students, with a mix showing up in person, on the internet and some 400 out of school on quarantine. Parents, he added, have been emailing, frustrated when their kids' questions aren’t answered quickly. And teachers are feeling like they have to always be on the clock to get to everything.

It doesn’t seem to be working for anyone, McGill said. One of his most experienced educators said she couldn’t do it anymore and asked if the school could buy out the rest of her teaching contract so she could retire early.

“We are pushing excellent and committed teachers away from the profession,” he noted.

Corrie Barrett, the principal at Brookwood Elementary, added: “They plan ahead. They stay late. They’re working weekends. They’re experiencing tremendous levels of stress we’ve never seen before. We’ve got to help them.”

Seeking ‘uncomfortable larger steps’

The Utah Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, confirmed Thursday that it will take up the cause and push for reform. President Heidi Matthews said she appreciates the steps that school districts have taken, so far, to address the issue of mental health for staff. She sees them as mostly “workaround solutions,” though, until the state steps up.

The union is renewing its call for Gov. Gary Herbert to close schools and move all instruction online for those in areas hit the hardest by the virus. That would remove a huge burden, Matthews said, by putting all teaching on the same platform instead of requiring educators to jump between remote and in person and those quarantined.

Additionally, the UEA has asked that Herbert at least better enforce the rules in K-12, particularly closing schools with an outbreak of 15 cases or more, as recommended by the state. Several in Salt Lake County, for instance, have ignored that and stayed open.

“It’s not going to be solved with small steps,” Matthews said. “It’s going to be solved with some uncomfortable larger steps and controlling the virus.”

She added: “What we’re hearing right now is that our educators in some places are not feeling safe, they’re not feeling looked out for and they have an unsustainable and impossible workload. We must tend to their concerns.”

During his televised monthly news conference with PBS Utah, Herbert agreed on Thursday that his conversations with teachers and the association have shown him that there are concerns that the rules in place at schools have not been consistently followed. Some educators signed up to come back to the classroom, he acknowledged, “based on a set of circumstances [they] believe are going to be enforced.”

“If there’s areas there that need to be modified in the plan to make it more consistent and enforceable, that’s under discussion right now,” he noted.

Herbert, though, said that might mean changing the current 15-person benchmark for positive cases — which most teachers have not requested. He added that “may be appropriate if we have a school of 500” students, but not in a school of 1,000 and that “proportionately ought to be a factor to that.”

“There may be some modifications to that,” he said, “but what we come up with should be enforced, and I expect that that will.”

The principals said Tuesday that they hope whatever happens, it’s enough to keep teachers in their jobs and keep them from crying.

—Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.