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Balancing in-person and virtual learning during the pandemic takes toll on teachers

Roughly 80 percent of K-12 teachers and staff in the U.S. are now at least partially vaccinated. But educators in many districts are still expected to teach students both in-person and online, and stress remains high for some. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More and more children are returning to class in person in schools around the country. Teachers are getting vaccinated, too. Roughly 80 percent of teachers and staff are now at least partially vaccinated.

    But stress remains high for some. In Chicago, the teachers union announced today that it wants to delay further reopenings, in hopes of allowing more time for others to get vaccinated.

    Jeffrey Brown reports on the latest challenges teachers face as they try to balance in person and virtual learning.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Outside Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, recently, students arrived for an unusual first week back in school.

  • Louise Resnick:

    It feels really, really nice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Complete with choreographed carpool drop-off, temperature checks upon entry, socially distanced hallways with signs to remind students to mask up.

  • Ahmad Elias Haider:

    To see all my friends, to go on the bus, to see the teachers, to see everyone smile, that's the best part.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Happy children and very high stakes for first-year principal Penny Hairston.

  • Penny Hairston:

    I'm so hard on myself. I don't want to make a mistake. So, it's my own…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Penny Hairston:

    … my own anxieties.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the midst of the pandemic, she's tasked with creating and maintaining a safe phased reopening plan for students and staff.

  • Penny Hairston:

    I love my teachers. I feel for them, they are family, and they have families, and I want my families to understand they are doing a lot right now. They're working hard, and then they're going home. And some of them have to do that second job.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Douglas MacArthur is using a hybrid model, dividing its 550 students into two groups, which alternate attending classes in person, each for two days a week.

    But families can still choose to remain 100 percent virtual, making it all the more challenging for teachers to keep a steady work-life balance.

  • Ashley Hojnowski:

    We had to get to know what their tablets look like compared to what we see.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ashley Hojnowski teaches first grade at Douglas MacArthur.

  • Ashley Hojnowski:

    Everything that we would do normally in a classroom, as far as, like, setting up routines, or even having projects for the kids to do, we had to switch it now for everything on the computer.

    I come here early in the morning, and I get my computer set up. And I do have a family at home with two little ones. So, when they go to bed, I am up on my computer working after-hours just to make sure my lessons are accurate and engaging for my students for the next day.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Longer hours are just one way the pandemic has taken a toll on America's teachers. From the beginning, without much federal guidance, the country's 13,000 school districts have largely determined their own standards in deciding when and how to reopen.

    Tonya Grimmke teaches special education at a high school in Cobb County, Georgia.

  • Tonya Grimmke:

    There are five times a day where you have got over 50 kids in the same cafeteria with no masks on eating and talking.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    While she has worried about safety protocols inside, her biggest frustration has been the lack of training with new technology, which she uses to keep her students outside connected.

  • Tonya Grimmke:

    I had to figure out how to give my virtual kids control over the remote, so they could also interact with the SMART Board or interact with whatever lesson we were doing. My kids in the room couldn't hear my kids on Zoom. And my Zoom kids couldn't hear my kids in the room.

    So, I had to get microphones and just different things. And I think that's what we're seeing all over the country, is teachers have no idea how to do this, and we had zero training.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    With demands constantly shifting, gaps in access to school resources have been magnified by the pandemic.

    Teachers, particularly those in low-income communities, have struggled to manage technology, engage students and provide basic instruction. Some families who can afford it are leaving public school systems. According to a December analysis by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press, this fall, public K-12 enrollment dropped by 2 percent compared to the year before.

    Teachers are also leaving public schools.

  • Khalil Suaray:

    I wanted to try out in person teaching. I was excited, but I was also nervous.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Khalil Suaray left Baltimore City Public Schools last year. He now teaches fourth grade at Arundel Christian, a private school in Maryland where students have been learning fully in person since September. This school year, Suaray had just one student continue to study remotely.

  • Khalil Suaray:

    I'm still a little anxious, but I'm also feeling better.

    Like, I'm like, OK, we can — this is possible, because we have small class sizes. They have a whole three-tier system where, if somebody tests positive, the whole class is quarantined and things of that nature.

    So, the school really did a great job of making me feel that everything will be taken care of.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Private schools, often with smaller class sizes and newer buildings with better ventilation systems, have greater flexibility in reopening and implementing costly safety protocols.

    Some small successes, but in the wider picture, especially for public schools, multiple stresses and overall hardship, suggesting a potential crisis for the teaching profession.

  • Melissa Diliberti:

    What we found is that teachers cited stress as a reason for leaving the profession more often than they cited pay.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Melissa Diliberti is an assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, focusing on education.

    There's always burnout and there are always teachers who are — feel forced to leave the profession. But you're seeing this exacerbated now?

  • Melissa Diliberti:

    We did see this increase in burnout between spring and fall. So, about three in 10 teachers were burned out back in the spring. And now that level is up to about six in 10.

    We also see that teachers say that they have just more negative feelings toward the profession now, this school year, than they did before the pandemic started.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A national teacher shortage before the pandemic now potentially even worse. Some have opted for early retirement, while others weigh leaving the profession altogether.

    So, how serious has the morale problem been this year?

  • Melissa Diliberti:

    Well, back in October, a quarter of teachers — a quarter of the teachers we surveyed said that they were likely to leave the profession by the end of the school year, the bulk of whom said that they were unlikely to leave the profession before the pandemic started.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Back at Douglas MacArthur in Virginia, Ashley Hojnowski told us she's seen the strains and stresses on fellow teachers, but, right now, especially as students are finally returning to class, she's doing what she loves.

    And no thoughts of leaving teaching?

  • Ashley Hojnowski:

    I plan to be a teacher until I am 78 years old.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ashley Hojnowski:

    No, this is the career I have chosen, and that's where I would like to stay.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And if she needed it, there was plenty of encouragement.

  • Nehemias Perez Perez:

    What I like about my teachers is that they help me all the time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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