A career in public education is a noble and fulfilling calling, but it’s also challenging and stressful under the best of conditions. Throw in a deadly global pandemic, social and political unrest, and economic uncertainty and you have the conditions for a system failure. Fortunately, our system has held up even during what has to be the most unusual and trying school year in recent memory. We have adapted to new ways of working. We have guided students into new modes of learning. We’ve erected physical barriers to protect ourselves and others, while using technology to lower barriers to learning when business as usual is not an option.
The efforts of New Jersey educators over the last 10+ months have been praiseworthy, whether or not that praise has actually been offered. We’ve never stopped working and innovating to keep our students safe, healthy and learning. As a result, we’ve salvaged what could have been a lost year. We have learned, we have grown, and we have discovered new ways of working that will benefit our students and schools once the pandemic has passed.
But that success did not come without cost. That cost was made clear in the results of a December survey of NJEA members regarding their experiences of living and working through the last year. Nearly 25,000 members completed the survey and while there were enlightening results throughout, the response to the questions about work and life stress jumped out. Overall, members rated their work stress as a 7.9 on a 10-point scale. Overall life stress was even higher: 8.1. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the stress levels those same members reported they felt before the pandemic: 4.7 and 4.4, respectively.
Those numbers are eye-opening, but not surprising for anyone who has been paying attention. Educating students during a pandemic is hard work, whether that work takes place in person or remotely. In the same survey, a plurality of educational support professionals reported an increased workload, as the job of keeping students safe and buildings functional has grown more difficult.
The same is true for classroom teachers, who reported a greater than 20% workload increase, from 44 to 53 hours weekly. That is the equivalent of adding an entire extra day of work without an extra day of the week in which to do it.
Most notably, it was teachers working in hybrid or all-remote settings who reported the heaviest workloads, with nearly 2 in 3 working more than 50 hours per week. This counters ill-informed criticism from some quarters that many educators have resisted a return to fully in-person instruction because “they don’t want to work.” Teachers providing fully remote instruction are working 8 hours per week more than their fully in-person colleagues.
The desire of many to remain remote is not about shirking work. It’s about accepting a heavier workload to ensure that students and staff alike remain safe. Well over half of educators who currently report to a worksite say they feel unsafe there, while two-thirds of those working remotely say they would not feel safe if required to report. Those concerns are even more pronounced among members of color and those who work in economically distressed communities. No one should feel unsafe at work.
The economic effects of the pandemic have been felt by NJEA members as well. Nearly half report some financial impact, from loss of household income to increased worry about affording housing and food. On top of that, many reported spending money out of pocket to be able to work effectively under these conditions. Expenses included not only classroom materials and supplies for students but personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies and technology upgrades. Three-quarters of members made such expenditures, with nearly half spending more than $250, and 1 in 9 spending in excess of $1,000.
A survey like this cannot offer solutions to challenges as complex as those we have endured this school year. But it does highlight those challenges, as well as the commitment of NJEA members to overcome them and help our children succeed. And it calls for all of us to continue our advocacy—day by day and district by district—for practices and policies that prioritize the physical and mental health of students and staff during this pandemic and once we emerge from it.