Many professions have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but few jobs are harder these days than being a teacher. Coming off a chaotic spring where many educators had to fly blind while everyone figured out virtual learning, teachers came back this fall to continued uncertainty. In many geographies, they have toggled between remote, in-person and hybrid classrooms and taken on the additional role of public health administration as they sanitize and socially distance their classrooms.
As we close out 2020, our new normal is taking its toll. One survey of Minnesota educators showed that 30 percent of the state’s teachers are thinking of quitting or retiring due to stress, workloads and fear for their personal health. Meanwhile, only 12 percent reported being happy with their occupation.
The state of Minnesota isn’t alone. School districts across the country are faced with the same challenge: how to help teachers stay well, both physically and emotionally.
“We’ve seen more resignations and early retirement filings than usual this year, as well as a slight increase in leaves of absence,” said Gina McCauley, benefits administrator for Downers Grove Grade School District 58 in Illinois. “We’re asking a lot of teachers, as well as support staff. They did not sign up for this.”
District 58 is located outside of Chicago and employees more than 600 full and part-time employees across 13 campuses. Overall, the district cares for more than 5,000 students. McCauley manages all benefits for the district, including medical, dental, life insurance, and most recently, wellness.
“Last year, we decided to offer more support for our people to encourage them to be more involved with their health, especially those with an existing condition such as heart disease or pre-diabetes,” said McCauley. “It turned out to be very good timing. We’ve already seen claims reduction on certain issues. We expect the trend to continue as we get our people in the habit of screening and doing the right things with the information and education they receive. It’s great to have these programs in place during the pandemic. It’s helped a lot.
Based on her experience supporting the district’s workforce, McCauley shared some thoughts on how to best serve educators and support staff as the pandemic rages on.
Prepare Your People
Over the summer, McCauley’s district committed to significant planning, education and training so that teachers could start the school year feeling equipped, safe and supported.
“Our district has planned well for this," she said. "We did as much as we could to prepare our teachers. We are fortunate, because I know that some districts are struggling a lot more than we are.”
“Our people are more aware of staying healthy and making sure they aren’t vulnerable,” McCauley said. As a result, they have taken steps forward with wellness offerings. In response to the pandemic, the district combined wellness screenings with flu shot events. They made tele-therapy services available, as well as diabetes education and prevention. And they are pushing for additional engagement with their wellness portal, as employees are turning more to digital means of support.
The enhancements are working. Downers Grove has seen a 30 percent jump in participation during the second year of their program. Additionally, the district has been able to keep its healthy employees healthy, with 93 percent of low risk participants remaining low risk year over year, even as health outcomes worsen across the country.
Invest in Empathy
“Teachers are having to plan for remote learning and in-person learning, while dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic hanging overhead,” said McCauley. “They are juggling the needs of their students and their own children, who are also learning virtually. Our parents have been incredibly supportive during this time, but across the country a lot of teachers are receiving increasing backlash from frustrated families. It’s a lot of stress. Too many people are failing to give teachers a break. Just check out the remarks on social media. We have to be sensitive to that.”
“We’ve conducted numerous surveys to get feedback from teachers and staff on how they are feeling and where they need help,” said McCauley. “We are committed to hearing their voices consistently. That’s been very important for us. “
Create a Positive Wellness Experience
“We’ve heard only good feedback from our screenings and how convenient, organized and safe they were,” said McCauley. “Word of mouth is obviously important when you’re trying to build momentum for a wellness program. We have been able to make it a seamless experience for our employees. They receive results quickly, and in a format that is easy to understand. And then follow up with support that is relevant and helpful.”
For the Future
McCauley is excited about pushing forward with additional wellness initiatives in 2021 and beyond. She sees the district’s recent success as step one in the process and plans to layer on additional tools, more robust incentives and targeted support to increase participation and improve health. This will especially critical if the pandemic continues to stress educators, which seems likely given our current state.
Interested in learning more about how you can better support educators and staff with wellness? Need help planning for 2021 offerings to ensure you can keep your workforce happy, healthy and engaged? Please contact CHC Wellbeing for a personal consultation.