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Teachers say return to school this fall has left them with overwhelming stress and a never-ending workload

Teachers Under Strain: CBC News journalists in Atlantic Canada and eastern Ontario teamed up to send out questionnaires to thousands of teachers to ask how they’re feeling two months into an extraordinary school year. More than 2,000 teachers replied.  

Classrooms look like they never have before this fall and teachers are feeling the weight of returning to school amid the pandemic, regardless of whether they’re in a region deemed a COVID-19 hot spot or an area with little or no community transmission. 

“The workload is never-ending. There’s no time to breathe this year. There’s no time to prep. There’s no time to eat your lunch. You really are go, go go,” says Lisa Levitan, a primary teacher in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, located in an Ontario region that’s been rolled back to stricter measures due to a steep rise in coronavirus cases.

She’s also hearing these sentiments from many colleagues. 

“Teachers have been coming to me letting me know how upset they are, how stressed out they are. They’re not eating. They’re not sleeping. They’re very overwhelmed. And quite frankly, some have already taken a year without pay or taken a year of sick leave or just decided this is not the job for them altogether,” said the 16-year teaching veteran, who is a union steward at her school.

Once a student in the board that she now teaches in, Levitan said “amazing” educators from her childhood inspired her to pursue the profession. 

“I love my job. I can’t wait to come to work every Monday morning,” she said. “But this is the first time I’ve ever even considered taking a leave of absence or taking the year off.… I love what I do, but I don’t know if I’m going to make it the year.”

WATCH | Ottawa educator on the toll of teaching amid COVID-19: 


Ottawa-Carleton District School Board teacher Lisa Levitan on the stress she and other educators are feeling amid the pandemic. 0:56

As part of an ongoing project, CBC News sent a questionnaire to the public email addresses of approximately 22,000 school staffers in eastern Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. We asked specifically that teachers respond, and more than 2,000 did.

They shared responses to topics ranging from what physical distancing looks like in their classrooms to remaining in the profession. 

Just over 70 per cent of the respondents — who spanned kindergarten to high school teachers — said physical distancing between students in class happened not very often or not at all. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of the participants said that inside classrooms, they are not very often or not at all able to remain physically distanced from students. 

A third of the respondents said they’re considering changing professions or retiring.

covid classroom
In Ottawa teacher Lisa Levitan’s classroom this fall, children are sitting behind plastic dividers. She’s concerned that her students may have trouble following along with what she’s doing at the front of the class. (Submitted by Lisa Levitan)

Though COVID-19 case counts are drastically different across provinces, respondents across regions shared similar feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed or exhausted. 

These concerns are echoed by educators in Quebec, which has had the most COVID-19 cases and deaths in Canada. CBC News sent a similar but separate questionnaire to the public email addresses of approximately 10,000 public school workers in that province: queries based on responses to an earlier questionnaire about Quebec teachers’ concerns before school started. 

More than 1,500 French- and English-language teachers responded to the latest one, with just over half saying they are rarely or never able to stay physically distanced from students. About 34 per cent of the Quebec respondents have considered changing professions, while 23 per cent are thinking of retirement.

“We are all feeling drained. We’re all feeling exhausted and wondering how we’re going to get through this school year,” said Shelly Bembridge, a Grade 6 teacher in the  Halifax Regional Centre for Education.

“I love being an educator, but I don’t feel like that’s what I’m doing right now. I feel like I’m a technician. I’m troubleshooting technology problems. I feel like I’m a COVID rule-enforcer.”

Bembridge said she’s working harder than she ever has in her entire 18-year career. 

“I want to focus on student learning and supporting students in academic pursuits, and I don’t feel like I have the skill set to do all of the other things on top of what I’m doing.”

shelly bembridge
Shelly Bembridge spends hours of personal time working on video one-on-ones for her students since she can’t get close in class these days. Sometimes when the Nova Scotia teacher is online working at night, students will send chat messages asking for help. (Robert Short/CBC)

Teaching has changed

So much of the onus has been for schools to develop and maintain health protocols such as sanitization, she said. Bembridge believes teachers should have instead been given the time to focus on how to keep students engaged given the varying models school might take amid the pandemic. 

She’s grappling with, for instance, how to adapt the learning stations she’s built since she can’t have students move around in the classroom. “It takes time to develop those alternative means of delivering the curriculum in an engaging way,” she said. 

“The only way I’m able to kind of give those engaging opportunities to my students is coming home every day and dedicating hours of my own personal time. But that comes at a cost to my family. It comes at a cost to my sleep, my mental health.” 

Students may be back in school, but many people aren’t fully aware of the fundamental differences in how classes must operate now, according to Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

“Teachers can’t group students together freely. The kinds of physical activity that you can do with students and the way that you can use spaces in the building is different.… [Additional] cleaning and sanitation, all that has an impact,” he said.

“People assume that teaching is the same. It’s not. Teaching has changed. How you do your job with physical distancing, with public health protocols — it’s not the same work, and that’s been a huge adjustment.” 

Educators at ‘state of high alert’ 

If teachers feel stress, it can trickle down to the students, says developmental psychologist Lisa Bayrami, a contract lecturer at Lakehead University. 

“We need to prioritize the well-being of educators because if they’re feeling as though they’re in survival mode… they don’t have the capacity to co-regulate and to engage in those attuned, positive relationships with students,” she said.

“We really need to support educators so that they are able to move out of this state of high alert into one which allows them to support the well-being of their students.” 

back to school wexford collegiate
If teachers feel stress, it can have an effect on students, according to developmental psychologist Lisa Bayrami. ‘We really need to support educators so that they are able to move out of this state of high alert into one which allows them to support the well-being of their students.’  (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Many teachers, Bembridge and Levitan included, have called on their provincial education ministers to pay a visit to schools to see how their respective back-to-school plans actually look inside classrooms. 

“We know that many students, their families, and education staff may be experiencing increased stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation and may be worried about their health and well-being and the well-being of their families and friends,” Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in a statement.

She reiterated that the ministry provided health and safety training ahead of the 2020-21 school year, including a day dedicated to mental health and well-being, and pledged $3 million that could be used to support staff mental health and well-being.

If you’re hungry and haven’t had any sleep and haven’t had a chance to rest or breathe, then you’re not likely going to be able to give your best professionally.​​​​​– Dominic Cardy, New Brunswick education minister

‘We’re trying our best’

Educators’ levels of exhaustion and heavy workloads had already been on the radar pre-COVID, said New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy, who acknowledged that the pandemic has forced teachers to step up more than they ever have.

“If they’re not getting recharged, they’re not going to be able to teach properly. It’s not just a question of looking out for the teachers and their well-being. It’s a question of the quality of the education system: if you’re hungry and haven’t had any sleep and haven’t had a chance to rest or breathe, then you’re not likely going to be able to give your best professionally,” Cardy said.

“We are trying our best to make sure that within the framework of properly protecting our school system from COVID-19, that we are very cognizant of the weight and the load this is imposing on teachers. We’re going to do our very best as we go through this to deal with that and, when it’s done, to make sure that there are efforts made to deal with what will be long-term consequences.” 

Navigating a return to school during the pandemic has been “uncharted territory,” said P.E.I. Education Minister Brad Trivers, who noted that “the amount of energy that teachers expend is definitely higher than normal” right now. 

“It’s natural for everybody to be feeling some anxiety and stress as we go into uncharted territory. But the key thing is we’re learning all the time, and we’re willing to adjust and make changes as needed.”

To share your experience in the education system during COVID-19 and for any story tips, please email us:  

With files from the CBC Investigative Unit, Jennifer Chevalier, Shaina Luck, Jonathan Montpetit, Karissa Donkin, Brittany Spencer and Deana Sumanac-Johnson

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