After a challenging year, educators assess the challenges to come

By: - May 19, 2021 6:20 am
The front of a school bus

Educators are raising alarms about exhaustion – among students and staff. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Ben Lambright could talk about the toll the COVID school year has had on his peers, but he said his teachers aren’t in much better shape. 

“I have teachers at school who, I like to joke, they have senioritis worse than I do,” the Nashua 12th-grader joked to a panel of education representatives Monday. “So not only are the students burned out, a lot of the teachers are burned out.”

The complaint is nearly universal. As schools have reopened their doors to full five-days-a-week instruction, and raced to line up expanded summer programming and tackle fears of COVID learning loss, many educators are raising alarms about exhaustion – among students and staff.

Teachers, who have ping-ponged through different instruction models, are contemplating retirement. Students, isolated from friends and meaningful connections with instructors, are dealing with anxiety and frustration. 

“We know from experience that a lot of students are feeling stressed and anxious not only directly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because, you know, it’s been a year since many students have seen a classroom full of students,” Lambright said. “And so, it’s starting to cause some anxiety in some students.”

The issue came front and center at a key Department of Education meeting this week. In its first time convening since June 2020, the New Hampshire School Transition Reopening and Redesign Task Force met Monday to check in with education stakeholders about what issues remained for schools and how to resolve them. 

Burnout was high on the list. 

Dellie Champagne, community engagement coordinator at the New Hampshire Children’s Behavioral Health Program, said her own conversations with teachers had painted a dark picture about the current mood.

“(They’re) thinking about leaving, they’re just so burned out from what just happened,” she said. “And that really scared me.”

On Monday, the task force weighed options to tackle that emotional exhaustion. Many agreed that boosting mental health support is crucial. 

To Champagne, one approach lies with the state’s community mental health centers. 

The Department of Education could devote money to create partnerships between schools and mental health centers, “a community care team of school staff and outside mental health professionals,” Champagne said.

“We need folks to be trauma informed and trauma responsive so we want to make sure that we create an environment in the schools where teachers feel competent to work with kids who may have experienced some trauma,” she said. 

But others pointed to a paradox: The same forces that have created the burnout in the first place could make it difficult to create the programs to address it.

“We’re going to need to find even more staff with some highly specialized areas of expertise, such as school psychologists, case managers, reading specialists, social workers, things of that nature,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association. 

With widespread workforce shortages across schools, keeping teaching staff levels at adequate levels is already difficult, Christina said. Expanding mental health services would compound that task. 

“To the extent that they’re available, trying to disperse them statewide to serve the needs of 170,000 children is going to be very, very challenging,” he said. 

Other members had out-of-the-box solutions. 

Orientation programs at the end of the summer could play a role in restoring normalcy, argued Lambright, the representative of the Student Voice Workgroup on the task force. As educators look nervously to the August and September starting dates, the state could help fund early orientation efforts to re-familiarize students with the classroom.

“Giving the students an opportunity which is a little bit more relaxed, to move back into a much more social system like we had a year and a half ago” would help, he said.

And Lambright added another simple suggestion: focusing on the outdoors. Summer programs that prioritize outdoor education could be an easy tool to add balance for both students and teachers, he suggested.

Amy Allen, assistant superintendent at the Manchester School District, echoed that call, suggesting state financial support for outdoor learning spaces, particularly for schools in urban environments.

And Champagne suggested encouraging parent-teacher associations and organizations to find creative ways to boost teacher morale, such as baked-good parties or events. 

Still, with every new initiative, staffing and logistical questions intervened. 

“Aside from the worker shortage because so many of our teachers are burned out from the school year, those that may normally teach during the summer in summer programs are taking the summer off,” Christina said. “They need time to recoup and recharge.”

Community mental health centers in New Hampshire already face a shortage of around 200 employees in total. Schools are struggling to retain guidance counselors and support staff.

Then there’s the matter of funding. While New Hampshire’s Department of Education has received over $500 million in federal “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief” funds, the majority of that money has been passed along to school districts. The money that remains has a shelf life. 

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, for his part, said he understood the need for more counseling and mental health support. But he urged caution when it comes to any major expansions.

“Part of the difficulty that we have is that this is kind of one-time funds, right?” he said. “We get it, and it doesn’t sustain itself beyond a couple of years.” 

To Christina, it’s a thorny question for school districts and school boards wrestling with how to craft their budgets. 

“We keep talking about needing more people, needing more staff, but staff and people are your budget drivers, aren’t they?” Christina said to Edelblut. “So there’s duplicity and contradiction within that. We talk about needing more staff and more people and more paraprofessionals and more psychologists and social workers in our schools, but we’re also saying, ‘Be mindful of what you’re going to have to sustain when the money is gone in a few years.’ ”

Edelblut said the department would continue taking input from task force members through the week and incorporate it into the next round of programmatic support. 

“Hopefully we can have a meaningful plan,” he said. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]