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Teachers grapple with being bullied during pandemic learning

"I have not seen such collective bullying like I have seen with this."
Drawn illustration of worried teacher wearing hazmat suit in a classroom with a man behind her
Katty Huertas / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, a teacher in Washington state named Sarah quickly pivoted from classroom instruction to online teaching. Even though she missed her in-person relationships with her fourth grade students and their families, she made it work, and she felt appreciated for doing so.

But so much has changed since the pandemic started. Last year, teachers were viewed as heroes. Now, many say they are being cast as villains. Teachers who feel nervous about returning to their classrooms are hearing a familiar barrage of complaints and taunts: “Get back to work” and “Do your job.” For the first time in her decade of teaching, Sarah, who feared she would be fired or harassed if she shared her full name for this story, considered quitting.

“It has been a roller coaster this year. It is horrible. The reason I don’t leave is for my kids,” Sarah told TODAY Parents. “I have not seen such collective bullying like I have seen with this.”

In early February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said schools can safely reopen without teachers being vaccinated. Even so, many teachers remain uneasy about returning, and many schools across the United States are still struggling over whether to resume full in-person instruction, stay virtual or embrace a hybrid approach.

In recent weeks, as access to vaccinations has increased, teachers have been facing more pressure than ever to get back into the classroom — regardless of their actual ability to receive a vaccine. President Joe Biden announced on March 11 that his administration is ramping up efforts to make all adults eligible for the coronavirus vaccine no later than May 1, but many people still encounter challenges when trying to schedule appointments.

Sarah said she longs for in-person learning but doesn’t feel safe in the classroom without receiving a COVID-19 vaccine first. She said she has valid reasons for concern: Some of her students travel out of state, and she’s unsure whether they quarantine when they return. Children have playdates with their classmates, and it’s unclear how safe they are during those gatherings. And some families insist that COVID-19 is a hoax and refuse to take any precautions at all.

“There’s anxiety,” she said. “(Families’) personal choices are going to affect the whole class.”

Many teachers said they feel puzzled that some think they aren’t working if they are not physically in the school building. If anything, they said they’ve been devoting longer hours to work since the pandemic began.

“I don’t think parents see how hard we are working,” Baker, a second grade teacher in Washington, who also asked not to use her full name because of fear of reprisals, told TODAY Parents. “For most educators, this has actually been the largest amount of work we have ever put in. ... I am working every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.”

Emily teaches third grade in Maryland; so far this academic year, she’s been teaching online. Her school district plans to send teachers back into the classroom when infection rates are low enough, but COVID-19 infections have impacted her school hard. The district has said it would improve ventilation in her building, but that’s been delayed. While she dislikes virtual learning, she’s not sure it’s safe enough to return.

“Parents are really frustrated because they’re ready for their kids to be back in school. The schools still haven’t really taken the safety precautions that need to be taken,” Emily, who also asked to have her full name withheld, told TODAY Parents. “Everybody is ready to get back to something that resembles some sort of normalcy. We’re just short of that.”

Marjorie Soffer has been a teacher for 26 years. While her Florida district started the school year online, all teachers returned to the building at the end of September to teach both in-person and virtual lessons from their classrooms.

“I went back very scared, although it’s been better, truthfully, than I expected it to be. The kids are very good about wearing masks,” Soffer said. “(But) as the months have gone on, the kids are getting a little more lax.”

For every class she teaches, Soffer said she has anywhere between six and 14 children present in her classroom and eight to 17 more children attending from home. The students in class look at her interactive whiteboard and see the same thing that students at home watch. Soffer said the school's administrators and staff are doing the best they can, but she's still hearing loads of complaints about teachers.

“All of a sudden we are lazy. We just want to stay at home all day and we don’t know what is good for children,” she said. “I do agree — children do better at school. But there was a valid concern about the number of cases and how we could be socially distanced. Yet, we were vilified.”

Karing Coyne teaches art to middle school students in Pittsburgh. She said she feels lucky that the school board has voted to continue online learning.

“There's a lot of pressure on families, and a lot of people are at a boiling point where they almost feel like our kids would be safer at school,” Coyne told TODAY Parents. “I feel like the administrators have taken our safety into consideration.”

One challenge her district faces is that many children rely on public transportation, which means they’re potentially being exposed to the virus more often. And, even if the district divided the students to attend on different days, she doesn’t have enough room at school to properly socially distance.

“There's no way for us to distance 6 feet apart,” she said.

While Coyne believes the district is using science to drive policy, she still hears plenty of angry comments.

“I hear people in online forums being like, ‘If these teachers don't want to return, then fire them.’ And I'm like, who's going to step up?” she said. “I don't think people really realize we (have a teacher shortage). A lot of people don't want to go into teaching.”

Many teachers say they wish people understood the challenges they’re facing. Parents chastise them during virtual class because they don’t like the way a question was worded. Or, a child attends class from a booth at a restaurant and can’t participate because it's too hard to hear. Teachers know that some of their students might be missing breakfast and lunch, and abuse isn’t being reported the way it should be. They feel powerless that they can't help their students the way they once could.

“It’s the best job in the world,” Baker said. “Just not this year.”

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