Educators, worn down in the COVID era, need relief

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This school year, many thought, would be a time when Omaha-area schools would make major strides toward getting back to “normal” in the wake of the COVID crisis. It’s turned out, unfortunately, that far from lightening teachers’ burdens, 2021 has added to them.

Staff vacancies force teachers to sub for others, take on additional students or even attempt to teach a subject for which they’re not certified. Teachers are finding that after last year’s topsy-turvy COVID-disrupted instructional year, the divergence in classmates’ academic performance levels is now exceptionally wide. Addressing that need requires more one-on-one attention with students – yet teachers now have reduced opportunity to provide that extra help.

Meanwhile, the return of “normal” in-person school routines has revealed that a distressingly large percentage of students have returned to class without needed social skills, heightening teachers’ frustrations over classroom management.

Altogether, the pressures on educators have mounted enormously – here in the Omaha area, but also statewide and across the nation. News coverage by The World-Herald’s Emily Nitcher recently examined the problem in depth.

“This year is a more challenging year,” said Tim Royers, president of the Millard Educational Association. “I think that’s the major piece the public doesn’t get.”

The return to classroom instruction has teachers concerned about addressing students’ social and emotional needs, said Jared Wagenknecht, president of the Papillion La Vista Education Association. The number of students “with significant mental health needs has become daunting.”All these conditions lamentably threaten to worsen the already troubling exodus from the teaching profession. “We’ve never seen this many people talk openly about leaving the profession,” Royers said.

And yet, the mission of our teachers could not be more vital for our society. One would be hard pressed to name any other profession whose work affects our nation’s future more than that being done right now by America’s educators. Addressing these multiple challenges, then, stands as a pre-eminent obligation for our schools and for our society.

The first step, a crucial one, is to encourage direct input from front-line staff. These educators and other staff members are by far the most knowledgeable about the range of real-world problems that must be addressed. Direction from these professionals can provide all-important guidance on how best to move ahead effectively. Teachers with Omaha Public Schools turned out in large numbers at an OPS board meeting last week to vent their frustration and call for action.

OPS points to steps it’s taking: Additional initiatives for wellness and employee retention. Adjustment of the school calendar to provide additional non-student days. Supporting paraprofessionals who wish to become educators. A concierge team of volunteers to provide support for staff. Building high school education academies to develop a long-term talent pipeline before students turn 18.

Omaha-area school districts have said they intend to use much of their federal pandemic relief money – OPS alone is receiving more than $300 million – to address students’ learning loss from COVID disruption since early 2020. A central part of that response must be to provide teachers with extra help in the classroom – such direct help can go far in reducing the pressure.

Since schools are now de facto social service agencies in needing to help students and families cope with emotional and mental health needs, other institutions – government agencies, nonprofits – must step forward with strategies to help meet families’ needs. School systems currently are left overburdened by needing to address such a wide array of societal challenges.

School leaders from across Nebraska took a positive step this fall by coming together in a statewide summit to brainstorm on strategies to address this crisis. One of the worthwhile approaches mentioned is to examine the certification process to remove any needless complications when an educator moves to Nebraska and would like to enter the classroom. Nebraska has already been pursuing this practical approach in regard to other professions, aiming to remove needless roadblocks to expanding our workforce.

We must not let this crisis overwhelm our schools. Relieving the pressures on Nebraska educators will show needed respect to these dedicated professionals. Above all, this help will bolster Nebraska’s ability to build a stronger future for students and communities.