Burned out parents and stressed out teachers struggle with school options

Time never slows for Warren resident Angela Hicks, 42.

Things moved into hyper-speed when COVID-19 hit and impacted her job as a paramedic at a private emergency medical services company in Macomb County. Her 12-hour shift soon became 16 hours.

“I have not stopped working full time,” the loving wife and mother of a 16-year-old son said. “It was – it is – just hard. [I was] gone from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I have to get home, log on to my son’s computer and make sure he did his work.”

A Mother on the Frontlines

Last year, even getting off work took time. Before she would darken her doorstep, Hicks undressed in her backyard, placed her work clothes inside a garbage bag her husband left outside, and washed them and her tired body.

“It was that serious,” the 11-year paramedic said.

Hicks, who loves her job, still struggled as a frontline worker. She’s been in too many homes to count where families tested positive for COVID-19. Some made it — others sadly didn’t. She saw up close the pandemic’s horrific effects, especially when she got the call to go to someone’s house and they’ve been deceased for days from COVID-19. This is all while juggling her son’s 100% virtual schooling. He recently returned to school part-time. Last summer she grew weary.

“I got burned out — it was just too much and my one concern was not bringing COVID home. My husband had underlying health issues so I would do my PPE,” Hicks told The Michigan Chronicle. “I took it like a life and death situation. I’ve known people who died. I’ve seen people who died.”

Hicks (and her husband) received both vaccinations and like many parents who have opted to choose hybrid learning are nervous about potential exposure.

“I got an email yesterday (March 3) about somebody in his high school who tested positive,” she said, adding that she hopes her son and more teachers can get vaccinated soon.

Hicks keeps her head above water by continuing to find work/life balance as the pandemic nears one year, and she puts her family at the forefront when her shift is over.

“I can’t wait to get home,” she said.

 Striking A Balance

So many other parents and teachers are looking for that balance, too, trying to ensure that their children and students are in the best learning environment while staying safe during the pandemic.

And just as statewide restrictions are easing up, in-person learning is returning, too, at the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). DPSCD and the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) recently announced that in-person learning resumes on March 8. The decision to return was based on science and data, along with closely monitoring COVID-19 infection rates, school officials said.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a press release that the pandemic infection rates in Detroit were over the five percent mark in November, and DPSCD made the “proactive” decision to suspend in-person learning until rates declined.

“Now that the infection rate in the city has consistently been well below five percent, we are ready to welcome our students and teachers back who choose to resume in-person learning and teaching,” Vitti said, adding that employees can opt to take the vaccine. “We look forward to more students and teachers returning to school for in-person learning and teaching.”

DPSCD will continue to offer online learning as recent district surveys showed that families and teachers showed a near doubling of interest in returning to in-person schooling in comparison to survey results last September.

“The decision for Detroit Public Schools Community District to have face-to-face learning as an option was a decision made based upon the current data available,” said Terrence Martin, president, Detroit Federation of Teachers. “We continue to stand by operating in the best interest of the teachers, faculty, students and their families. … We will continue to monitor this situation and make sure the best decisions and practices are in place.”

Not every teacher is ready to return, though. Martin confirmed with The Michigan Chronicle that only 20-30 percent of teachers want to teach in-person. He contributed that to some teachers feeling safer teaching at home and concerned about potential health risks.

 Staying Safe

“We have to keep in mind there is still fear … out here relative to the virus,” he said, adding that teachers have lost loved ones over the past year. “I don’t think that’s talked about enough — the level of trauma our folks feel, particularly in the Black community.”

Martin, who applauds Governor Gretchen Whitmer for prioritizing teachers to get vaccinated, said that with the primarily Black teachers at DPSCD, some have vaccine hesitancy that’s deeply rooted in distrust in the government.

“[This] is real and has to be respected,” Martin, who has been vaccinated, said, adding that he’s encouraging teachers to consider taking the vaccine.

Teachers who choose to work in person for the third quarter will receive $750 in hazard pay. All teachers and staff reporting to a building will have received a negative COVID-19 test. DPSCD also has extensive safety protocols in place. The full reopening plan is reviewed monthly by the District’s Board.

The DPSCD created a Wellness Resource guide (initially developed last spring) to help the school community with wellness calls to parents, DPSCD Deputy Superintendent Iranetta Wright told The Michigan Chronicle.

“We wanted to ensure our staff had available and current information to share about resources in the community,” Wright said, adding that there are increased opportunities for teachers to attend sessions geared toward wellness, including topics related to managing stress.

“Through our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider, staff may access a support counselor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our Mental Health Hotline is also staffed with counselors who may offer additional support,” she said. “Our focus with the community was heightened at the onset of the pandemic.”

Martin said addressing the mental and emotional needs of staff is not just a school district issue but a citywide issue. “[Let’s] not put it all on DPS. What is the mayor doing? Where’s the help? The help for the average citizen who is experiencing this high level of trauma over the past year,” he said.

Schranda Battle is principal of the Plymouth Educational Center (PEC), a public charter school in Detroit. PEC is managed by Distinctive Schools, a non-profit organization.

Battle said that a lot has been done to help manage the emotional state of teachers, students and families during the pandemic.

“We did not put extreme pressures on returning to the building,” she said, adding that they’ve made it optional for in-person learning. Similar to DPSCD, if COVID-19 case numbers were high they kept the buildings closed. She added that frontline worker families in desperate need of in-person learning had a safe option to bring their children to school.

“Most of those parents are … employed in industries that opened sooner than others — a lot of them are essential workers who work night shifts and need somebody to support students during the day,” she said, adding that the primarily Black school was also hit hard by COVID-19.

“We have had many of our staff members who have lost very close and immediate loved ones due to COVID-19,” Battle said. “To the best of our ability we have tried to work with each situation case by case and provide the space and the grace and understanding to all [to] process … what has been going on all around us.”

 Giving More Grace

Southfield resident Lia Day is a second-grade charter school teacher and mother of two girls, aged two and six.

Day, who taught virtual classes since last March, recently started teaching hybrid.

“It was an adjustment the first couple of days and making sure the kids online are getting the same level of attention as the kids are getting in person,” she said, adding that the first week back was hectic and a little bit stressful. “But it’s been getting easier every day.”

Day said that she experienced burnout but is “lucky” because her retired parents could watch her girls and she didn’t have to figure out daycare.

“When we were completely online just a week ago my parents came to watch them,” she said, adding that being home all day was okay at first but it became overwhelming with all the multitasking and teaching while parenting. Now she goes to work and can get a break somewhat and teach her 23 students — 10 who are in person. “From the staff to parents — everybody needs grace right now.”

Dinah Beasley, a restorative practitioner/trauma-informed trainer and a former school counselor, said it is important to take a moment and recognize that people are overexposed to trauma right now and parents and educators need to continue to work together to find common ground.

“I work across the board with families and corporations teaching them how to respond and recognize the stress and trauma of different challenging circumstances,” she said. “I try to give educators resources to get to the parents … making sure we’re working as a team.”

Taking Notice

Through a MI Classroom Heroes COVID-19 new grant program, Whitmer is hoping to shine a little bit of light on hard-working teachers.

Whitmer and State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks recently announced the expansion of the MI Classroom Heroes COVID-19 Grants to include recognition for the Great Start Readiness Program (GRSP), Head Start, adult education and young adult (ages 18-26) special education classroom teachers.

Whitmer said in a release that teachers worked tirelessly especially during COVID-19 to ensure that their students could continue learning.

“It is simply the right thing to do to expand these grants to include all specific program teachers across the state,” she said.

The COVID-19 Grant Program enables those specified teachers to receive up to $500 for extra hours worked and costs incurred during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. A state budget appropriation signed by Governor Whitmer at the end of 2020 provides $2.5 million to make specific program teachers eligible to receive a MI Classroom Heroes COVID-19 Grant, who were not eligible under previous programs.

To receive a grant, specific program teachers must have performed at least 75 percent of their standard instruction workload in brick-and-mortar classrooms to moving to remote instruction on April 2, 2020. Districts and nonprofit nonpublic schools will distribute certification forms to eligible teachers by March 19.

For more information about MI Classroom Heroes COVID-19 Grants, go to www.Michigan.gov/MIClassroomHeroes.

 

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