Black educators struggle to cope with COVID-19 stress: ‘We are overwhelmed’
From bans on mask mandates to anti-vaccine rhetoric to mental health stresses, Black school employees are navigating schools reopening as COVID-19 rages on.
When Brooke Nugent went back to work in schools this summer, she was confronted with the harsh reality that COVID-19 is far from over.
“We had a teacher die, a Black educator by the first day of school,” Nugent told theGrio. “We have students who are hospitalized. We have students who are coming back with severe PTSD.”
Nugent, who is an academic program manager for a group of charter schools in the Central Valley of California, with 16,000 students and 600 staff members under her purview, is facing a question that many Black educators, administrators, and school staff are facing nationwide: how to personally cope with the stress of a pandemic while supporting students in education system already saddled by racial and social inequities?
“We are understaffed, we are overwhelmed,” Nugent tells theGrio. “And that ‘Black tax’ is real because as a people, we have always said we’re going to take care of our own, right? So now we’re looking out for our babies but are trying to stay safe. Those usual hugs, the sharing of the food, the nurturing component that is us as a people feels separated because we are no longer allowed to do so, not because we don’t want to, but we still have to go home to our own families.”
Nugent lives in California, the first state nationwide to institute a mandate that school employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing. As a newlywed, married to another Black education leader, she believes the policy is the bare minimum that could be instituted without inspiring a mass exodus of staff or students.
“If you’re not doing the vaccination, that’s between you and your God and your beliefs,” Nugent tells theGrio.
“Even though we want you to do so, you don’t have a choice of harming others by not being tested. Like the least that we all can do is be aware of our status.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to mandate school vaccination stands in stark contrast to states like Florida and Texas, where governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are banning mask mandates and actively threatening superintendents and school board members with salary cuts if they defy orders. Four educators in Broward County, Florida recently died from COVID-19 within 24 hours of each other, before classes even started, according to CNN.
Three of the four were reportedly unvaccinated.
“I’m really worried about where we are in terms of the politicization of COVID,” says John B. King, former Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, and current 2022 candidate for Governor of Maryland.
“You have these governors like Governor DeSantis…I think they are behaving in ways that are reckless and frankly, incredibly dangerous,” King says.
King tells theGrio that Black education leaders and other leaders are walking a tightrope as they try to serve children and put their foot down on safety measures.
“You’re put in this terrible situation where you have to go against the state government,” King says. “People are risking their financial well-being. They’re risking their job security, but they’re doing it because they know it’s the right thing for kids.”
The stress of navigating COVID-19 politics, caring for students, and caring for themselves, are just a few of the reasons more educators are quitting their jobs. A new study from the RAND Corporation says one in four teachers were considering leaving their job by the end of the school year.
“One heavy toll of COVID-19 we don’t talk about very much because it’s invisible is the toll of this pandemic on our mental health and well-being. We know that rates of depression and anxiety have increased for so many people,” says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in an interview with theGrio.
Dr. Murthy says it’s understandable that both parents, children, and educators are mentally tired.
“I know the last thing folks want to do is to stand in the public square and fight about issues like masks or other precautions that our kids need, but this is a moment where we need courage more than ever,” says Dr. Murthy. “If you’re a teacher or a school administrator, pushing for the precautions your kids need, including everyone wearing masks, but also improved ventilation, regular testing in schools- that is courage. It’s what our children need.”
Assistant Principal Todd Hayes drives home after a long day at school in Pleasant Grove, Texas, proudly wearing his Morehouse College alumni shirt. Lessons from his Morehouse days ground him during these stressful times.
“One thing that Morehouse always told us is about the purpose to serve and to give back and to just make sure that you are uplifting our next generation,” Hayes tells theGrio. “We’re a resilient group, you know, we’ve gone through so much as a community and we’re here not for the money, you know, we’re here for our purpose.”
Hayes lives in a state where mask mandates are banned and manages a school where some children wear masks and others don’t. He says his school community has been supportive and are rallying together to focus on what matters.
“We have to check your own feelings, you know, [at] the door a little bit when, you know, your district says one thing or another,” Hayes tells theGrio. “The biggest thing right now is closing academic gaps because that is priority number one.”
Hayes is also a father of two and husband to a fellow educator, who gave birth to their youngest child during the pandemic. He got vaccinated as soon as it was available to ensure their safety, as he feared someone may bring it to campus.
“I made the direct choice. I said I want to get it for my family,” Hayes says.
Through it all, Hayes says he overcomes the hurdles because students must keep learning.
“We can’t let them slip because of a pandemic. No more than segregation or more than, you know, all the things that we’ve gone through as a community. We can’t let that stop us to get us where we need to be.”
Natasha S. Alford is the VP of Digital Content and Senior Correspondent at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.
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