Carolyn Howe, a kindergarten teacher and vice president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says educators are feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of pressure that comes with it. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Carolyn Howe, a kindergarten teacher and vice president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says educators are feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of pressure that comes with it. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Stress leave, tears and insomnia: B.C. teachers feel the strain of COVID-19

Teachers still adjusting to mask and cleaning rules, pressures from outside and within

Kindergarten students are not very good at physical distancing. Even if they were, it wouldn’t be good for them.

That’s just one of the things in the back of Carolyn Howe’s mind when she tries to keep her students at Victoria’s South Park School engaged – but safe – in her classroom.

“It’s challenging … trying to figure out that line between supporting their social and emotional development and not wanting to traumatize them,” she said. “Not wanting to teach them that you can’t share, versus wanting to make sure we all stay safe. That’s been a hard line to walk.”

Roughly one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. teachers are feeling the emotional and physical tolls of the ongoing restrictions, both in their classrooms and in their mental health.

Students returned to schools on Sept. 8, 2020 after the sudden cancellation of in-class instruction the previous March. Precautions included learning groups (60 students for younger grades and 120 students for secondary schools), physical distancing, hand washing, cleaning and physical barriers.

READ ALSO: B.C. to roll out ‘learning groups’ as part of COVID-19 back-to-school plan

READ ALSO: B.C. teachers file Labour Relations Board application over COVID-19 classroom concerns

Concerns were there from the get-go. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) filed an application for the Labour Relations Board to look into working conditions, citing concerns about inconsistent and inadequate implementation of safety measures.

Standardized testing – administering the Foundation Skills Assessment during the pandemic – has also been a point of contention.

In February, mask rules were expanded in schools – mandating face masks be worn by all middle and high school students except when they are eating or drinking, at their own desk or workstation or when there is a Plexiglas barrier separating them. The expanded rules came after dozens of school exposures in the Lower Mainland.

This came about a month after the BCTF issued an online survey for teachers working during the pandemic. Responses from roughly 4,100 B.C. teachers indicated the vast majority (83 per cent) had experienced worsening mental health. About 75 per cent of male teachers and 85 per cent of female teachers said their mental health had worsened a lot or somewhat since COVID-19 arrived in B.C.

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA), says many teachers are struggling.

“You feel like you’re responsible for ensuring that everybody that you come in contact with is safe…. It’s this constant vigilance that I think is devastating on people’s mental health,” she said. “I feel like many of our members are in crisis … I talk to a teacher in tears on a daily basis.”

Waldron said teachers want transparency around data and exposures and better access to counselling. She said a more consistent mask mandate would also take some of the stress off educators, who have to enforce complicated rules and exceptions.

For Waldron the gender-based results of the BCTF survey are also notable.

“Our workforce is predominantly women and they are predominantly feeling the brunt of the ongoing pandemic,” she said. “Women continue to do the majority of the emotional labour, and that is just at such a heightened expectation right now.”

Sitting in a tiny chair in her classroom, Howe, who is also the GVTA vice president, echoed Waldron’s concerns. She said she’s seen more burnout and extended leave among colleagues. Many tell her they experience regular insomnia.

“I think the resilience of all of us is down,” she said. “Ten months a year (teachers are) carrying the needs of their class with them all the time. The psychological weight of thinking about these humans that you work with and their needs – that’s always there. This year, it’s much harder to cope with.”

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

– with files from Katya Slepian and Ashley Wadhwani.

CoronavirusEducationGreater Victoriasd61

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nanaimo city council voted in support of penning a letter to the province asking for a public inquiry into the justice system in B.C. and why the courts release prolific chronic offenders back into communities. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo city council supports call for tougher penalties, criminal justice reforms

Council concerned that repeat offenders keep being released, votes to send letter to B.C. government

Nanaimo city council voted unanimously Monday to pass a bylaw establishing the foundation for a new downtown business improvement association. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
City of Nanaimo adopts bylaw to create new downtown business improvement association

Chamber of commerce says next steps will be a board of directors and five-year strategic plan

Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district teachers’ union, and its counterparts from Mount Arrowsmith district, seek stricter COVID-19 rules. (News Bulletin file)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith teachers’ union asks health authority for stricter COVID-19 measures

Teachers ask for vaccine, more online learning, mask mandate for primary students

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Chakalaka Bar & Grill remains open in defiance of orders from Island Health to close. (Cole Schisler photo)
Island Health seeks injunction against restaurant defying COVID-19 orders

VIHA says Chakalaka Bar and Grill also violating water and sewer regulations with RV hook-ups

Nanaimo Fire Rescue investigator Mark Jonah probes the scene of a blaze that destroyed two apartments on Sunday, April 18. The cause of the blaze has not been determined. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
UPDATE: RCMP say Wakesiah Avenue fire was arson, suspect has been arrested

35-year-old man arrested for allegedly starting fire lived in the complex

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

The City of Nanaimo will further investigate an initiative to set up two 12-cabin sites to create transitional emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness. (Black Press file photo)
City of Nanaimo will ask for expressions of interest to operate tiny cabin sites

Staff expresses concern about workload, councillor says sheltering people must take priority

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Christy Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, is the first of several present and past politicians to appear this month before the Cullen Commission, which is investigating the causes and impact of B.C.’s money-laundering problem over the past decade. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

The former B.C. premier testified Tuesday she was concerned the problem was ‘apparently at an all-time high’

Police executed a search warrant at the Devils Army Clubhouse on Petersen road in Campbell River on August 10, 2017.
Murder trial into 2016 Campbell River killing underway in Victoria

Ricky Alexander is charged with the first-degree murder of John Dillon Brown

Most Read