Teachers struggling with continued challenges in latest COVID surge

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — We’ve heard from many teachers throughout the pandemic. For the majority of them, teaching in the pandemic has been more trying than any other time in their careers.

Now with schools closing due to COVID-related absences and staffing shortages, KGW checked in with teachers again.

Amy Ambrosio, an English language arts teacher, and Laura Fisher, a social studies teacher, both work at Roosevelt High School. Nicole Safranek teaches students at McDaniel High School who are learning English. All three teach at schools that have been closed and transitioned to remote learning. They said they weren’t surprised when that happened.

“We had 25 staff out on Tuesday and we had 16 unfilled subs,” said Fisher.

“We’ve had so many student [and] staff absences, since school began. It just seemed like surely we are right there on the cusp of this happening to us. So yeah, I think we all kind of saw it coming,” added Ambrosio.

Safranek said there is so much uncertainty, and she never could have imagined the situation districts are in right now.

“Clearly, we’re at a crisis level where I’m a little bit speechless that this could possibly happen,” said Safranek. “That you would have to close schools because there aren’t enough adults.”

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“Things have just been so reactive. It’s just like I keep saying, it’s like we’re lurching from crisis to crisis,” Ambrosio said.

It’s all taking a heavy toll on teachers and students alike.

“Not only are we dealing with students with mental health and anxiety issues […] and depression, our staff are reporting and sharing with colleagues just how much mental health struggles they’re having as well,” said Ambrosio.

Fisher said she’s seen her colleagues use more mental health days than in years past. In addition, she said, earlier in the pandemic there was a stronger emphasis on social-emotional learning. There were “soft starts” to the beginning of school terms that allowed students to gradually get accustomed to school again, and students had fewer class periods, which she said resulted in less pressure.

This year, Fisher said instructional minutes are being prioritized instead.

“It was like, yep, everything’s fine. We’re all back to normal. We’re gonna go back to eight classes. We’re not going to have any of that social emotional time that’s like carved out. And so then teachers are put in a position of saying, ‘I know this is what students need, but also, I’m not trained as a social worker,’” explained Fisher.

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Ambrosio said there has also been immense pressure on teachers to somehow get kids caught up academically, due to concerns about loss of learning. But Fisher and Ambrosio said the strategy isn’t working: students are acting out or not showing up at all, while teachers are stretched thin and stepping in to help colleagues cover classes without substitutes.

“We came to the administration saying, ‘We’re drowning.’ We came to PPS and we said, ‘Our kids are drowning,’” said Fisher.

“They have been out of school for a year and a half. Functionally, our seniors are stuck in the middle of their sophomore year… Not necessarily their academic skills, but as far as their self-management, social skills, their ability to struggle through something, their ability to navigate conflict with other people,” she said.

Now, in this latest COVID surge, teachers are at their breaking point.

“We know what amazing student support looks like,” said Fisher. “And when you can’t do it, and it’s because you’re under-resourced, it stabs you in the heart. I love teaching and I’m one of those thousand teachers that thought about leaving. This is my whole heart… Everything that I love about teaching nourishes my mind and my soul,” Fisher said.

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In the Gresham-Barlow School District, Doug Robertson, a fifth grade teacher at Powell Valley Elementary School, knows the feeling.

“Up until this year, I have always been a person who was like, I will never leave. I love teaching. There’s nothing else I would rather do and this is the first time when I’m like, ‘I get it. I understand,’” said Robertson

He said in the education sector, teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. He’s on unpaid leave and is not teaching in person on the advice of his doctor.

“I would be teaching from home but we were never given the chance to do an online option. So I had to make a choice between my health and my students,” Robertson said.

He also has a 2-year-old child who is immunocompromised with a heart defect. Robertson said it’s frustrating that safety protocols don’t seem to add up. He says educators at his school are only meeting virtually even if they’re masked and vaccinated.

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“Why is it safe to pack 35 kids into a classroom right now?” he asked.

Teachers are at their wits end trying to juggle safety and mental health issues all while trying to do their jobs with fewer resources and less time to do it.

“We’re demoralized by a system that just keeps piling more and more on us and not providing the resources that our students and our families and our colleagues need to be healthy,” said Ambrosio.

“It’s a slow-moving train wreck that we’ve seen coming all year long,” said Fisher.

What do teachers want most of all? More time. Most teachers KGW has spoken to said they need more time to address student needs, plan lessons and coordinate with other teachers.

Fisher said she wishes there was a metric used to determine whether a school would transition to remote learning. She also hopes the district will start providing KN95 masks for students. Teachers have told KGW they’ve seen students wearing masks improperly.

“We’ve been asking for better fitting masks for students all year long and we haven’t been getting them,” said Fisher.

She said if teachers want better masks, the school would have to pay out of its own budget.

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