This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Sylvester Brown, Jr.

The state of Missouri was suffering teacher and substitute teacher shortages long before the COVID-19 pandemic wrapped its talons around the world’s throat. However, according to local educators, the pandemic has made an already fragile situation more friable with some long-term teachers seeking new careers.

More and more teachers are experiencing burnout, Todd Fuller, spokesman for Teachers Association, told St. Louis Public Radio in December.

“What’s concerning is not just new teachers leaving the class, but teachers who have 10, 15, 20 years in the profession are deciding to leave to do something else,” he said. 

COVID has introduced frustrating challenges into the school system. Teachers interviewed for this story say it’s not just the virus; it’s student academic decline, the serious lack of janitorial staff to properly clean and sanitize classrooms, administrators who fail to address the safety concerns of children and educators and much more.

If we can’t get them to pull up their pants, what makes you think we’re going to get them to keep a mask on?

Kem Smith, English teacher in the Ferguson/Florissant School District

A survey conducted by the Missouri State Teachers Association late last year found Missouri teachers are “stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed.” Additionally, out of the 2,800 teachers surveyed, about half said they have considered leaving the profession altogether.

Allison Rabbitt, a University City middle school teacher who’s been in the profession for almost 30 years, is well aware of teacher’s post-COVID frustrations.

“I know teachers interviewing at other schools (for administrative positions) and others trying to get out of classrooms altogether,” Rabbitt explained. “And that’s a shame because these are great teachers. But just the amount of stress this year and last year, it just feels like it’s never-ending…and it’s not changing or getting better.”

Rabbitt is no stranger to stress as she often takes her work home with her.

“I just worry about what’s happening to our kids. Many nights I just couldn’t sleep,” she said. “At one point, I had one child in class. I have kids on my roster that I haven’t seen in 3 or 4 weeks. Their parents are scared that their kid will get COVID.”

Michaela Morgan, 24, became a high school teacher with the county’s Special School District in 2019, mere months before the start of the pandemic. Her education at Mizzou, Morgan said, did not prepare her for a school system stymied by a pandemic.

“It’s been an eye-opener,” Morgan said. “When COVID hit, no one knew what to do. It was like the whole world just stopped, and teachers were lost in confusion and fear. I’m wondering how we’ll keep the world turning with this huge thing going on?”

She says she sometimes feels as if some school administrators care more about “the job” than they do about teacher’s health or well-being.

“It’s like, ‘keep wearing your mask and social distance’ and that’s it,” Morgan explained. “Where’s the love? Where’s the care?”

Special School District high school teacher Michaela Morgan in her class room at Northwest High School in north county. Photo by Wiley Price | St. Louis American.

According to the Special School District online data, as of January 24, there were 147 cases of COVID in its facilities, which include schools, garages, administrative offices, and distribution centers with 65 students and 82 staff members who tested positive.

Morgan finds those numbers unsettling.

“Just going into a building where we know the disease is in there and feeling like no one really cares, well, it’s a crappy feeling,” she said.

Kem Smith, an English teacher in the Ferguson/Florissant School District, said the educational shortage is connected to teacher’s personal concerns.

“We’re trying to maintain our families as well as the classrooms,” she said.

On another note, Smith said most substitutes are retired teachers.

“You’re not going to get retirees to show up in the middle of COVID,” she said. “You just aren’t!”

Another factor contributing to educator’s absenteeism is ever-changing guidelines and mandates, Smith added.

“I know a teacher whose daughter tested positive, but she had to leave her at home and come to work,” she said. “Because of new guidelines, if you’ve been exposed but have had your vaccinations and you’re not showing symptoms, well, you have to come to work.”

For the first time in her 21-year-career as a teacher, Smith said she’s almost at a breaking point.

“I would say this is my first time actually knowing what depression feels like,” she said. “It’s the quarantining and all the changing, top-down regulations they force us to do…it’s close to unbearable.”  

McCluer High School teacher Kem Smith in her class room. Photo by Wiley Price | St. Louis American

The mostly political fight over mask mandates not only adds an additional toll on teachers, it also impacts how students behave in school.

“Trying to get kids to wear masks is probably the toughest part of my job,” Smith said. Laughingly, she added, “If we can’t get them to pull up their pants, what makes you think we’re going to get them to keep a mask on?”

More seriously, Smith says she believes parents and politicians fighting mask mandates are sending a dangerous message to their children and students.

“When some kid in the hallway has his mask down and I tell them to pull it up, that kid will say, ‘I heard we don’t have to wear ‘em,’” Smith said, adding, “I say, ‘no, we’re going to protect ourselves around here.’ Then I say, ‘it’s kinda funny how you’ve never watched the news until it’s time not to wear a mask.’”

Rabbitt, the U. City middle school teacher, has had similar encounters.

“I hear my sixth graders repeat nonsense about vaccines that they’ve heard from some adult in their lives and I respond, ‘hold up, vaccines do work. You’ve never had polio have you?’” she said.

The threats, violence, and outbursts exhibited at some school board meetings over mask mandates frustrates Rabbitt to no end: “It’s just a piece of fabric we’re arguing about, people. Come on!”

COVID has exacerbated an already alarming situation. Smith, who’s working on her dissertation, may be leaving the field soon. Rabbitt, who’s up for retirement in about five years, hopes COVID-19 will help “re-invent” schools with a more serious emphasis on student’s social and emotional learning.

“Kids have been traumatized by this just as much as adults,” Rabbitt said.

As for the newbie, Michaela Morgan, she’s committed to outlasting the pandemic.

“In the end, I remind myself why I got into education,” she said. “I love to teach, and I go back for my kids.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.