Calgary·Schools Under Stress

Calgary area educators mentally and physically exhausted from teaching during pandemic

CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 responded. More than 2,100 of them were from the Calgary region.

'We feel what we call our June burnout, but we've been feeling like June burnout for months'

Calgary educators say all the changes that come along with teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic have led them to feel burnt out. (Mike Symington/CBC)

This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. More than 2,100 of them were from the Calgary area. Read more stories in this series here.


It's not a secret that the past year has brought unforeseen and unprecedented challenges, and educators are no exception.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means this year has brought new rules, new structure and new fears to the forefront of teachers' and students' minds. Educators say with all the challenges and changes that come with teaching during a pandemic, this year life in classrooms, both in-person and online, has been unique to any year prior.

"It's zero per cent the same. Everything about it is different," said Calgary Board of Education teacher Sara Polson, who teaches a Grade 3 and Grade 4 split class at Louis Riel School and has nearly a decade of experience.

"Everything from learning how to execute and teach and run a classroom with sanitizer and masking, all those things that we've never had to consider before have totally turned our world upside down."

Polson said teachers are grappling with their own pandemic-related anxieties, as well as those of their students.

"If I'm visualizing my kids in my head, I can pinpoint a few where they have visible COVID anxiety,  literally tied to, 'am I going to get COVID at school?'" she said. 

Sara Polson, who teaches Grade 3 and Grade 4 in Calgary. (Submitted by Sara Polson)

Polson isn't alone in worrying about the anxieties of her students. The mental health and wellbeing of students are top of mind for many educators in the province.

Student stress reactions to COVID-19

As part of a cross-country project, CBC News sent a questionnaire to the public email addresses of approximately 9,000 school staff in Calgary and the surrounding area. Of those who responded, more than 1,800 were teachers from  the Calgary Board of Education, Calgary Catholic School District and Rocky View School Division.

Of those respondents who identified as classroom teachers, more than 90 per cent feel the challenges of this year will have a psychological impact on some students. 

It's something Alberta's four largest school boards are already looking into. The districts are working with a University of Calgary researcher who is studying student wellness during the pandemic by asking how students are feeling at four different periods of time and assessing the impacts COVID-19 is having on their social lives, educational experiences and mental health.

Leading the study is Kelly Schwartz, associate professor and psychologist with the Werklund School of Education.

The same group of 1,700 students, ages 12 to 18, from all four of Alberta's major metro school divisions have already been surveyed three times for the project — once in September following the return to school, once in December when classes moved online again, and most recently in late February to mid-March with plans for a fourth round of data collection next month.

Three out of 10 students are saying this is almost like a post-traumatic stress reaction that they're having.- Kelly Schwartz, University of Calgary

In the most recent wave of data collection, Schwartz said about 28 per cent of student respondents were falling into a critical range of stress.

"That's not a small number. That's almost three out of 10 students who are saying to us in our survey that their levels of stress are impacting their thinking, their sleep patterns, their abilities to concentrate, all that sort of stuff," he said. 

"Three out of 10 students are saying this is almost like a post-traumatic stress reaction that they're having. It's truly impacting their day-to-day functioning."

In an emailed statement, CBE chief superintendent Christopher Usih said the pandemic has had a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of staff, students and families. 

"Over the course of this school year, thousands of CBE students and staff have had to isolate due to COVID-19. Despite these disruptions, our employees have done a remarkable job to support learning continuity during these trying times," he said.

"I am most grateful for the ongoing service and continued commitment to student success our employees have demonstrated."

'I have never felt this anxious on a daily basis'

Teachers say when their students are stressed they can tell and it has a trickle-down effect on their own mental health.

Of the approximately 150 principals and assistant principals who responded to CBC's questionnaire, nearly all were worried about teacher burnout, and more than half either somewhat disagreed (about 25 per cent) or strongly disagreed (about 31 per cent) that in the context of COVID-19, school is a safe place for teachers and students.

Ernest Manning High School teacher Lea Marinelli. (Monty Kruger/CBC News)

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I have never felt this anxious on a daily basis or stressed, and I tend to feed off the energy of my students. When I feel their stress, it stresses me out, too," said CBE Ernest Manning High School teacher Lea Marinelli. 

"It just breaks my heart because I know that all of them come to the table with a whole slew of issues that they might be dealing with, with their families. They may have lost loved ones. They may have loved ones that are critically ill."

Compassion fatigue and burnout study

U of C researcher Astrid Kendrick has been studying compassion fatigue and burnout in educational workers for nearly 18 months, with funding from the Alberta Teacher's Association and the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan.

Her phase two report was recently released, and work on the phase three report is underway. 

"What my research showed is actually about 56 per cent of our teachers have compassion fatigue, which is something that we normally associate with nurses, firefighters, paramedics, that kind of front-line staff," she said.

"Our teachers are exhausted. They've been building a plane in the air for the last year trying to figure things out."

She said her findings, which come from more than 4,000 survey responses, show upward of 80 per cent of educational workers were showing two or more symptoms of burnout. 

"As it gets worse, it leads to depersonalization which, in my opinion, is the most dangerous outcome, particularly if you're working with children and youth," she said.

University of Calgary researcher Astrid Kendrick has found that more than half of teachers are struggling with compassion fatigue, and more than 80 per cent of education workers are showing two or more symptoms of burnout. (Submitted by Astrid Kendrick)

"If a teacher is severely burned out or feeling compassion fatigue, they're not going to be creative. They're not going to be energetic. They're not going to be interesting teachers. They're going to feel like 'I've got to deliver this content to you and then I've got to get out of here.' That the lack of creativity will impact students"

'We are spent'

Polson said teachers are feeling burnout this year like never before.

"The colleagues that I work with and talk with almost every day, we feel what we call our June burnout, but we've been feeling like June burnout for months," she said. 

"We're masked all the time, and talking into a mask is physically exhausting, and then trying to have eyes on 27 kids when it's time to sanitize or take off masks … just the extra instructions and the extra worry and anxiety, because at the end of the day part of their health and safety is on us.

"By the end of the day, we are just spent … All of us are just walking out of the building as fast as we can to get fresh air and breath a sigh of relief to take our mask off," she added.

Mandatory isolation when students or staff are close contacts with a confirmed case of COVID-19 is also adding to stress.

"I've had to isolate four times. That's something like 50 school days," said Marinelli. "I couldn't even walk my dog."

Government messaging confusing

Teachers said when it comes to how the government has handled the pandemic, they don't necessarily feel seen. 

In response to a question about how the government handled the pandemic, around 1,900 educators and school staff responded.

Less than two per cent strongly agreed the government has made education a priority in their pandemic planning and nearly three-quarters of respondents strongly disagreed the government has handled things well under these circumstances. More than 65 per cent strongly agreed that messaging from the government has been confusing, and around 90 per cent were somewhat or very concerned about contracting COVID-19 on the job.

In an emailed statement, the province said throughout this pandemic the safety of all staff and students has been its number one priority.

"The robust health protocols in place at schools have been effective in keeping transmission levels relatively low. The majority of cases were not acquired at school but rather in the community," wrote Alberta Education acting press secretary Charlotte Taillon in an email last Thursday.

"Currently, active cases in schools amount to less than one per cent of all students and staff in the province. We thank all school staff for following the health measures in place at schools and doing their part to limit the spread of the virus."

All Alberta students from K to Grade 12 are currently learning online or from home until May 25, and have been for more than a week. That move was mandated by the province earlier this month after COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in the third wave.

Read more on this series:

Of the local educators who participated in the questionnaire, nearly 40 per cent say their views on working at a school have not changed and around 15 per cent say they are more committed than ever to their work.

But, nearly a quarter of respondents say they are considering changing professions and about a tenth are considering early retirement. 

"Sure, we have reconsidered our careers, but we mostly teach because we love our students and we love what we do and we're passionate about what we do," said Marinelli, who has been teaching for nearly two decades.

"It's just hard to be passionate and it's hard to be an expert in your field when you're facing all of these extra challenges."

METHODOLOGY

CBC sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.

CBC chose provinces and school districts based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.

(Data analysis: Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan)

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:

  • The Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) | crisisservicescanada.ca

  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone. Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

  • In Quebec (French): Association Québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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