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How teachers’ and parents’ COVID stress is affecting kids

Alexis, 17, has always been close to her parents. But since the pandemic began, they have been arguing a lot. “We snap at each other more,” she said. “And because there’s more negative emotion with the virus and we’re all trapped in the house together, the stress is definitely amplified.”

Both her parents have been working from their Maryland home since March last year. For most of that time, Alexis’ sister, who has graduated from college, has also been living at home. Last April, their grandmother also came to stay with the family for a while, when the COVID cases in Florida, where she lives, were skyrocketing. Until this past year, Alexis, who has her own bedroom, said she had always thought of her house as “normal” sized.

But with her family at home all the time, seeing each other at every meal, the house began to feel awfully small. Problems that in normal times would blow over instead blew up into conflicts. “That’s a clear memory I have of them just getting very, very upset very quickly,” she said of her parents. “I remember they got extremely, extremely mad.”

Her experiences aren’t unique. The parents of the more than 50 million children who attend public schools in the U.S. are facing an unprecedented amount of stress. They worry about keeping their families healthy and how to juggle work and childcare. Some face financial anxieties because of furloughs or unemployment, and many is feeling isolated and lonely.

A number of studies have found the pandemic has created a range of parental stressors, such as school closures, job losses and interruptions in care for children with chronic diseases. Parents have reported high levels of stress, clinical anxiety and depression — all of which are associated with a higher child abuse potential.

Related: Isolation, panic and constant juggling — A year in the life of three moms

Teachers are in a similar boat, Alexis has noticed. In her online classes, they can seem on edge. She laughed when she heard that some adults think children don’t notice — and aren’t affected by — how stressed they are. “Parents and teachers aren’t fooling us,” she insisted. “Not even close.”

Jennifer Greif Green, an associate professor in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University, said most of a child’s interactions with adults are with their parents and teachers, “so any disruption to that is really going to have an impact on that whole ecosystem and all those relationships.”

She said that as everyone heals from the disruption of the past year, the education system needs to recognize that adult stress has affected children and must put in place a plan to support adult mental health and rebuild trust in relationships. “When parents and teachers who are around children are doing well and are feeling good, then the children who they’re with will have better mental health and better academic outcomes.”

“We know from decades of research on parent and child relationships, that when, for example, mothers are depressed, children are much more likely to be depressed. And there’s similar research coming out in schools where teachers who are depressed have students who don’t do as well,” Greif Green said.

Related: How to handle tantrums, anxiety and other pandemic parenting challenges

Adults who are stressed may be distracted, she said. And even if adults try to hide it, stress trickles down to children and affects how they do academically, psychologically and emotionally.

Lisa Sanetti, a professor of educational psychology at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, said recent research shows adult stress can actually prompt a physical reaction in kids. “Their cortisol levels, the stress hormone levels, go up,” she said.

This stress can disrupt children’s relationships with adults, including their teachers. “And we know that relationships between teachers and students are essential to students feeling connected and engaged in school and frankly, just staying in school.”

Sanetti said the “levels of heightened stress and waves of uncertainty” adults have experienced during this past year have very real effects on children. “I’d say that it’s not possible to focus on the children without making sure that the adults around them are healthy as well.”

Alexis said that early on in the pandemic most of her parents’ stress was because no one knew a lot about how the virus was transmitted or what would keep them safe. They washed groceries and stocked up on supplies. Now, she said, her parents’ concerns relate to other stressors.

When her parents worry about her grandmother or struggle with work demands or get frustrated when the Wi-Fi crashes, Alexis said the whole energy at home changes. “You can see them getting upset, just being snippy or sulking around the house, like a teenager would.” She said it doesn’t happen often but when it does, it affects her a lot. “With parents, their mood changes the mood of the whole house.”

Stress in adults is higher among parents, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. And one of those stressors is trying to teach their kids: Almost three-fourths of adults with children recounted that managing online learning was a “significant source of stress.”

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found parents of children studying online were more likely to report work loss, job stability concerns, child care challenges, emotional distress and trouble sleeping, than parents whose children studied in person. Parents of students learning virtually were also more likely to indicate that their children’s mental or emotional health had worsened since the start of the pandemic.

Dorina Bekoe, the mother of two children, ages 9 and 12, knows that stress well. She’s been very careful about following all the recommended COVID-19 protocols because her daughter has a pre-existing condition. Bekoe said she’s been dealing with the stress of trying to keep her family safe on top of the constant juggling act of managing her own work as a social science researcher with her children’s online school work.

That means waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get some work in before her children wake up. And staying awake working after the children go to bed at about 10 p.m. “It’s kind of grueling,” she said.

Bekoe no longer has time to go on daily runs, an activity she said is a huge stress reliever. She also no longer reads for pleasure. “If I need to choose between sleep and reading, then I will just sleep. So those outlets don’t exist anymore,” she said. And she no longer has much social contact, even something as simple as chatting with her kids’ friend’s parents at soccer practice or a birthday party, because all their activities have been canceled or are online. “That kind of community is just not there anymore.”

When she has deadlines that have to be met, Bekoe said she tries to block everything else out so she can get her work done. But she feels torn because when she successfully focuses on her own work, she knows that her son’s school work isn’t getting done. “Part of what makes it so difficult is I can see the stress on my kids, and more so for my younger child. That stress will manifest in tantrums or crying or just not wanting to do the work,” Bekoe said.

She’s not sure her children can articulate, “’You know, Mom, I’m stressed because you’re feeling stressed,’” she said. “But I know that when I have the time to really pay attention, everything’s a lot calmer.”

Even early on in the pandemic, surveys showed parental stress was affecting children. In March 2020, a University of Michigan study found parents with at least one child under the age of 12 reported they were disciplining their children more during the pandemic. At the time of the study, a majority of parents (61 percent) had “shouted, yelled, or screamed” at their children at least once in the previous two weeks; 20 percent of parents had spanked or slapped children at least once in the previous two weeks.

Parents with children who have disabilities are especially affected by the pandemic. They’ve experienced more anxiety, depression and loneliness than their peers whose children do not have disabilities, according to a December 2020 report from the University of Oregon. The report, based on the months-long “Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey,” indicated these parents worry about delayed screenings for disabilities, cancelled therapies and their children regressing.

Byron McClure, a school psychologist at a high-poverty school in Washington, D.C., said he hears every day from students whose families are struggling with basic needs like food and electricity. Many of the families at the majority Black school have lost their jobs and have been disproportionately affected by COVID. He said that an “insurmountable amount of stress” permeates everything.

“Parents are without a doubt bringing that stress into the house. And whether they know it or not, children are receptive and they’re picking up on that,” McClure said.

The high schoolers he works with report trouble sleeping, changes in their eating patterns and say they are more likely to have temper tantrums or crying fits. “And some of the times the children might not be able to tell you why that’s happening, but without a doubt it’s from that stress that is happening inside that environment.”

Malika, a high school senior, understands that stress. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her father, a driver, and grandparents. Her father has been working long hours since the pandemic began, mostly delivering food. “He’s tired a lot. And he is more irritable about small things,” she said. If she left dishes in the sink pre-pandemic it wouldn’t have bothered him, but now he gets upset. And this, in turn, affects her, she said, because she’s dealing with her own challenges. “It makes me agitated and irritated,” she said, which makes it harder to get school work done.

“I take longer to complete it because I’m so frustrated that I can’t really focus,” Malika said. “It gives me a headache and I have to take a break and come back to it.”

The American Psychological Association has warned the negative mental health effects of the coronavirus will be “serious and long lasting.”

Across the river in Maryland, Alexis tries not to think about how different her last two school years would have been if not for COVID. She’s a straight-A student, takes part in several extra-curricular activities and has always enjoyed good relationships with her teachers.

The pandemic has made her teachers seem more like regular people.

“It was definitely weird to see moments of weakness in my teachers. They’re stressed about grading, they’re stressed about the pandemic, they’re stressed about their kids,” she said. She also noticed her teachers look tired all the time. “You can just see like bags under their eyes, a little glassy look, just visual cues of being exhausted.”

She said one of her teachers has to take breaks from her Zoom class to help her own children with their online work. One day, her teacher got a call telling her that her son was ill. “I saw her face change and I saw her getting emotional. It was a very vulnerable moment for her,” Alexis said. She understood then why that teacher had seemed frantic when presenting a lesson earlier.

When Alexis has asked for an extension because she is struggling, some teachers are very understanding. Her math teacher, for example, wrote back to her immediately saying, “I understand. I’m feeling similarly.” But in other cases, she said, “some teachers get a little mean, a little more on edge. A lot of times they just want things done their exact way.”

Having teachers who are patient and relaxed makes a difference in how she feels about herself and her school work. “A bad interaction with a teacher can definitely ruin a day,” she said.

Heidi Crumrine, who teaches high school English in Connecticut, said this is the most challenging year she’s ever had. “And I say [that] as someone who started her first day of teaching on 9/11 in the Bronx in New York City,” she said.

She said she’s working harder than she ever has and yet feels a constant sense of guilt. “That I’m not a good enough teacher for my students and I’m not a good mother for my own children,” she said. “It just feels like a constant wave of never feeling like I can do what I know I’m good at.”

Crumrine’s husband is a teacher as well, and they’re constantly juggling schedules. Her district has switched often between online and in-person classes, and she sometimes has to be in school while her children are at home. She doesn’t want to put them in child care and increase their exposure to the virus, yet doesn’t have family who can easily help out. It feels, she said, “like we’re building the plane while we’re flying it and the destination keeps changing on us.”

Crumrine said that when she speaks to teacher friends across the country they say they are eating more, drinking more and working more. For her part, Crumrine said she’s sleeping more, but it doesn’t help. “I’m tired all of the time,” she said.

Related: Tears, sleepless nights and small victories: How first-year teachers are weathering the crisis

Sanetti, at the University of Connecticut, said even before the pandemic, teaching was stressful. “They’re tied with nurses as the number one most stressed occupation in the United States,” she said.

Gregg Weiczorek, the principal of a high school in Hartland, Wisconsin, said COVID has just exacerbated that pressure. He has witnessed first-hand how pandemic-related stress affects students, too. Weiczorek, who is also the president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said most students in his school have been attending school in person almost the entire pandemic, while about 20 percent are on online. The stress of teaching in a dual format is exhausting, he said.

“Teachers are working exorbitant hours. Some of them are working in school all day, and then they’re working for four or five hours from home,” he said. “So there’s significant burnout that’s occurring.”

He realized teacher stress was becoming a problem when he saw an interaction between a teacher and student in class, when the student questioned something the teacher had said.

“This teacher started crying. Then she took her glasses and smashed them on the table, broke them and raised her voice and said, ‘This is it. I’m going to quit. I can’t deal with this anymore,’” Weiczorek recounted. “I’ve been working with this teacher for 20 years. I’ve never seen her ever even come close to losing her cool before.”

Weiczorek said his role this year has been less as principal and more as a counselor. He’s had many teachers cry in his office and has already had conversations with some teachers who plan to retire early at the end of the school year.

Experts say helping teachers manage their stress is essential for kids, too. But figuring out how to provide that support is tough. Crumrine said her district has offered a “self-care” webinar which she appreciates, but said it just feels like one more thing she needs to do.

“I didn’t want to spend the whole day on Zoom doing that,” she said. “The reality is when you’re living it, you’re just trying to get to the end of the day successfully and try again tomorrow.”

The ideal situation for children is for the adults in their lives — parents and teachers — to be partners. But the push to reopen schools has exposed the tension between families who want their children to return to school and teachers who are concerned schools are not yet safe. Greif Green, of Boston University, said this has set up an unfortunate dynamic, where the adults are at odds with one another. And this further exacerbates the stress everyone feels.

“It’s made it much harder for teachers and parents to stay focused on the needs and mental health and well-being of children. And that has created a huge challenge,” she said.

Leonda Archer, who teaches middle school math in Virginia, said she misses her students, both as a teacher and as a basketball coach. “I miss the vibe of school, the energy, all of that. But I also love humans and I don’t want to people to be sick,” she said. She’s had family members die of COVID and she’s worried about her daughter getting infected.

She said that when schools closed, teachers were lauded — initially. “We were seen as angels like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been home with my child for two months, how do teachers do it?’ And now the narrative is totally flip-flopped,” she said. “All I hear is people telling us what we need to do, but not recognizing what we are doing.”

Sarahi Monterrey, who teaches English learners in Waukesha, Wisconsin, knows how scary the illness can be: Her entire family, including her 7 and 8 year old daughters, got COVID. She worries that her colleagues — some of whom have pre-existing conditions — might become infected.

Monterrey said she’s surprised by how contentious the issue has become: “It’s stressful because there seems to be a huge divide. It’s almost us against them,” she said.

At one school board meeting she attended, she was placed in a virtual room with parents and students, rather than with educators. “There was a teacher who spoke about her husband getting COVID,” said Monterrey, “and a parent in my room said, ‘Who cares?’ And I was like blown away. Like, someone just said her husband had COVID and your response in front of kids is ‘Who cares?’”

Sanetti, the educational psychology professor, said reopening will be difficult, not just because of the logistics involved but because a sense of trust has been broken. For schools to truly get back to normal, she said that trust needs to be rebuilt. “The relationships between the school and the community and making sure that we can repair that, is going to be an important part of coming back,” she said.

Alexis has noticed what she calls this “weird” divide among the adults she sees the most. “It’s like a disconnect, where neither side wants to understand the other,” she said. She’s heard many parents blame teachers for schools not reopening, which she thinks is hypocritical because they are still working from home. At the same time, she said, it’s hard not to wonder how much better her education and social life would have been had teachers agreed to in-person classes this year.

She said kids are dealing with their own pressures and sense of loss; when adults don’t agree, it just adds to students’ anxiety. “You feel caught in the middle. Like there are two voices in my own head that are telling me different things,” Alexis said. “You’re always taught, ‘Respect your parents and respect your teachers.’ But when they want completely different things what do you do?”

This story about adult stress was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.