The White House and several Governors and State Departments of Education are defining teachers as “essential workers” this fall. In Mississippi, educators were required to return to the classrooms in most districts, in some cases, with disastrous results. There is no question that teachers and education support professionals are absolutely essential to education. If we are going to designate them as such, then we need to put our money where our mouths are and support these essential educators so they can do their jobs preparing students for success without putting their health and the health of their students on the line.
A review of the school reopening plans for 48 school districts in 20 states recently released by the Southern Education Foundation revealed that those plans varied dramatically in their attention to teachers’ needs. A vast body of research has shown that teacher quality is a critical determinant of student achievement. Therefore, if schools are going to provide high quality education during the current pandemic, they must pay attention to the needs of their teachers.
The following are four ways schools and districts can support these essential workers so they are better able to provide students with high quality education, whether that’s delivered in-person, online or through a hybrid approach.
1) Engage teachers in reopening decisions
Teachers are the education professionals who best understand students’ learning needs and their own instructional needs. Their perspectives and input are crucial to creating an effective learning environment.
Only half of southern states intentionally incorporated teacher input in their plans,and even fewer southern states explicitly mentioned either surveying teachers or collecting teacher input early in the process of developing their reopening plans. Such input helped districts and states create more complete and thoughtful reopening plans.
2) Reevaluate and develop more supportive sick leave policies
Twenty-eight percent of our nation’s teacher workforce is over the age of 50 and therefore highly susceptible to contracting more virulent cases of COVID-19. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found roughly a quarter of teachers (nearly 1.5 million) are in the high risk category for developing a serious illness from a COVID-19 infection stemming from a combination of risk factors, including having underlying health conditions and being over the age of 65.
National data have also shown that Black and Latinx people have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, meaning Black and Latinx educators face a higher likelihood of missing work due to contracting COVID-19 themselves or having a family member contract it.
This underscores the importance of keeping all educators healthy and ensuring they have adequate paid sick leave when they are not. In southern states, the common baseline number of sick days in a school year is 10, four days less than the isolation period following possible exposure to COVID-19. And individuals who actually contract the virus can require much longer to recover from it. While educators can rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act after using up allotted sick leave, that leave is unpaid.
State sick leave policies must take into account this new reality and allow for possible increased teacher absences due to COVID-19 by offering information on provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that mitigate loss of pay for educators who must be away from the classroom for a prolonged period, allowing employees adequate time off if they are exposed to or infected by COVID-19, and ensuring employees they receive pay and benefits during a prolonged absence.
3) Provide professional development and resources to help teachers adjust to distance learning
Teaching remotely requires skills and practice beyond that required to provide effective and engaging in-classroom instruction, and many teachers have not received training in teaching, facilitation and instructional design required for virtual learning. Districts and schools should assess teachers’ and home educators’ familiarity with remote learning best practices and provide professional development to address any gaps that includes mentoring and coaching.
Like students, teachers in some areas are having difficulty accessing the reliable WiFi and technology they need to deliver online instruction, either because of where they live or cost associated with reliable, high-quality WiFi. Some districts are addressing these needs by covering some of teachers’ costs and others have set WiFi hotspots for teachers and instructional staff who need them.
4) Support educators’ social and emotional wellness
Almost everyone is dealing with the mental and emotional challenges associated with the fallout from COVID-19, whether it’s feelings of isolation or stress associated with caring for family members, changes in family income, death, general anxiety or other issues brought on by the pandemic. Teachers, administrators and staff are no different. Teachers have also reported that they are also experiencing extreme stress due to the abrupt transition to distance learning, the possibility of in-person learning, and uncertainty about what will happen in the upcoming school year. That stress is exacerbated for education professionals who have lost a loved one to COVID-19. For teachers of color, the general stresses surrounding COVID-19 coupled with the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on communities of color can be an immense emotional and mental burden, and Black teachers are managing the additional burden of the heightened attention to and demands for racial justice.
While there is rightfully much attention to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and physical health needs of students and educators, schools and districts should also consider ways to provide the emotional and mental support teachers will need to effectively teach their students, such as virtual wellness programs, counseling services, social emotional learning lessons to help with coping, and more.
 These southern states that intentionally incorporated teacher input in their plans are Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia.
Titilayo Tinubu Ali is the director of research and policy at the Southern Education Foundation and Erica Jones is the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators