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Mental health in the Valley Part 3: Educators experienced 'long, grueling days' at height of pandemic

Daily Item - 8/9/2022

Aug. 9—MILTON — Retiring Milton Area Superintendent Cathy Keegan said the last two years in education have been long with a lot of high tension.

As essential workers, teachers in public schools juggled ever-changing guidelines for COVID-19 and the education of young people. Keegan said the team often worked 14 hours a day almost every day of the week trying to keep up with all the changes that came with education during the height of the pandemic.

"They were long days, they were grueling days," she said. "We were alone. Everything we did was through Zoom or Teams. You really didn't have that camaraderie of being in each other's presence. You had to work harder at self-care."

With the polarization and politicization, Keegan said it was hard for superintendents to keep districts moving forward while affording a safe and healthy learning environment.

"It wore on me," she said. "I would be remiss if I said it didn't. It did. It was trying to make good decisions based on the information we had, knowing there was always going to be a faction where it would be an unpopular decision. You had to use that moral compass and lean on people who could guide you, who were experts in specific areas. You knew when you went to bed at night you made the best decision you could with the information you had."

Despite it all, without education, "We could never continue to grow. In the beginning phases of COVID, people felt that gap in their life. Kids felt it. They missed seeing their teachers and their peers. Those factors are large factors in the well-being of people. Every day, we probably save a child's life."

Support from CSIU

Throughout last summer and last year, the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit tried a variety of approaches to support the mental health and morale of educators in its districts, said CSIU Chief Outreach Officer Bernadette Boerckel.

"For several months, throughout the year, the Mental Health and Resiliency Community of Practice held a voluntary, free virtual professional development session after school hours for Pre-K-12 districts to attend with ideas about how to boost faculty and staff morale and mental health," said Boerckel. "These were facilitated by Anne Katona Linn of Katona Linn Consulting LLC and Christina Moser, Pre-K Counts program supervisor. These were well attended and provided tips and resources that teachers could bring back to their staff. It also provided a safe space for teachers to discuss burnout and compassion fatigue with one another so they didn't feel alone. It helped to normalize the stress and anxiety many were feeling."

Similarly, two nurses meetings were held virtually this year with experts from Geisinger and Evangelical hospitals to provide support to them on the medical side of contact tracing and testing, but also to share the struggles of nurses, in general during the pandemic, and to offer strategies for them to reduce exhaustion, compassion fatigue, stress and anxiety, she said.

Sixty-one people from 12 of 17 districts participated in the Happy Teacher Revolution. The CSIU sponsored Danna Thomas, a national speaker who started the Happy Teacher movement, said Boerckel.

The CSIU also brought Laura van Dernoot Lipsky of the Trauma Stewardship Institute to discuss burnout and ways to recognize the signs. This reached 600 CSIU employees and teachers, she said.

"Our Pre-K Counts Program held a paint day for teachers with Paint, Party, and More," said Boerckel. "The idea was to slow down, reflect, and relax. A stress reliever and wellness opportunity. It was very well received. The arts may provide unique experiences for mental health."

The Mental Health and Resiliency Community of Practice also reached out to superintendents with cards of thanks, appreciation, and reminders to take care of themselves while taking care of their districts and communities, she said.

"The CSIU also negotiated consortium pricing for employee assistance programs (EAP)," said Boerckel. "We have found this to be very useful and highly utilized during COVID. Milton, Warrior Run and SUN Tech all added EAPs in September of 2020. The services they provide on-demand have been much needed and appreciated by staff."


Crystal Donlan, of Sunbury, has been an educator for more than 20 years. She is currently an English and communications instructor at Luzerne County Community College, where she transitioned to fully remote teaching since the pandemic began due to being an immune-compromised professional. She is also a remote instructor for Elizabethtown College as well as a Penn State doctoral candidate with a focus on postsecondary online and distance learning.

"There are many lessons to be gleaned from pandemic teaching and learning," said Donlan. "I am fortunate to hold roles where I serve as an innovation thought-leader, learning architect, growth facilitator, and professional development creator."

As an immune-compromised professional, the most stressful aspect has been the intense anxiety related to the COVID-19 contagion, she said.

"I think most educators want to facilitate great learning experiences for our students, but most of us are also very exhausted from the stress of trying to do this during an ongoing pandemic," said Donlan. "As a knowledge worker specializing in online learning, the most stressful aspect has been dealing with the overwhelming public misperception that emergency remote education equates to quality online learning; it does not, by any means."

Donlan said she tries to remain positive and embrace that everyone is going through this unique time together, even if everyone experiences it differently.

"There were certainly early moments of despair for us, when my school, as well as schools all over the nation, shut down in March 2020," she said. "But we did our best to keep our perspective. My son and I have been extraordinarily isolated during the pandemic, primarily for reasons of health. We often take rides in the car with the dog, just to get out and see the landscape. We also try to spend some daily downtime watching a show or film together."

Donlan said she has been very busy with both teaching and learning during the pandemic, which she described as a blessing.

"I do love what I do, and the pandemic has allowed me to expand my scholarship in the field of distance learning," she said. "I presented virtually at a national conference last year, and will be doing so again in October at another national virtual conference. I feel fortunate that those outlets exist for me."

Trauma-informed course

Along with teaching undergrads, Donlan also taught faculty how to improve their own teaching practices.

"It was a tough course to design, because, in truth, we are all immersed in a collective global trauma," she said. "This has been hard on many service professionals, and teachers are no exception. So many of us, myself included, have been present for our students through the upheaval of the pandemic only to find ourselves experiencing compassion fatigue and occupational overload."

Her trauma-informed practice course, which is an online asynchronous offering as well as a live workshop seminar, helps learning professionals identify the layers of dealing with trauma in an educational setting from both a learner perspective and a teacher perspective.

"The course focuses not only on helping our students, but on recognizing and caring for our own trauma issues as well," she said. "This course has been very well received, and I feel it is so necessary to have these outlets for educators who want to learn more. Teachers need to know they are not alone. We have been teacher strong since COVID started, and we will remain so — a big part of maintaining that is supporting and encouraging each other through the rough patches and tough times."

'Not near us'

Kyrie Ciborowski, the new Line Mountain Elementary principal, was working as a fourth-grade teacher at Shamokin Area Elementary in 2020. She was pregnant with her second child.

"I remember hearing about what was going on, but at that time it (COVID) was not in the U.S., at least not near us," she said. "As the year progressed, I remember becoming more and more involved in the news and all the information about what was happening. It was one of those things that I would continuously tell myself, 'There's no way something like this could happen near us.' I had my daughter at the end of February and the world seemed to change by the time I was released to go home."

The more she would talk to her fourth-grade team, the more she wondered if things would begin to change, and her worst fears were going to become reality, she said.

"March came around and reality struck, fast," she said. "I decided to talk to my doctor and got permission to work from home; like the rest of our district. It is really difficult for a teacher to go on maternity leave because you never seem to feel like you are prepared enough. You care deeply for the students in your class, and you want to do what is best for them."

Online was an "unfamiliar and scary thought," she said.

"I didn't feel comfortable throwing a substitute into that position," she said. "So, with my toddler and newborn next to me, I went online and tried to figure out as much as I could about Google Classroom. I talked to my amazing fourth-grade team, and they helped me get up to speed."

The most stressful part of being a teacher during the past two years was juggling the number of "hats" a teacher needs to wear, said Ciborowski.

"Along with the large number of daily tasks, teachers now have to learn how to become an online teacher, in-class teacher, and make sure each child's needs are met on all those platforms," she said.

She said she and her fourth-grade class worked together well by using each other's strengths and sharing resources with each other.

"I remember meeting with my team on Google Classroom to discuss information and help each other with the things we struggled with," she said. "We were provided with Google Classroom training. It was really helpful to have an expert answer your questions and walk you through the issues instead of researching them on your own. Mr. Anderson, from our tech department, was also super helpful in making sure we had what we needed and was there to assist with any issues that we had."

School nurses

Milton Area School District Nurse Crystal Hoover provides for the care of students whether that be first aid, care for an ill student, and or emergency care to students and staff. School nurses give medications to students in the morning and at lunch time, as well as manage care plans for students who have chronic health issues. They provided screenings for vision, hearing, BMI and scoliosis.

"The last two years we have been taking many phone calls and seeing students and following Department of Health guidelines related to COVID," said Hoover. "Since myself and my colleague started in 2020 all we know is what school nursing is with COVID. For us I would say the high volume of phone calls, keeping in compliance with the DOH regulations, keeping track of all the data and reporting it to the DOH and making sure all the students coming into the nurse's office are taken care of, which at times we would see as many as 70 kids a day. Sometimes I felt I was working for the DOH with the number of times I talked with them a day."

Hoover said she made friendships during this time at Milton that have sustained her and got her through some long difficult days.

"I felt like if I could go home and exercise that was an accomplishment for me and a great stress reliever," said Hoover.


Jennifer Engleman, a paraprofessional for the Milton Area School District, said 2020 was the most challenging year.

"Overall I think 2020-2021 was the most challenging year since we were still figuring things out," she said. "So many days I came home exhausted from wearing a mask and feeling depleted. Hearing about students losing family members or parents due to COVID was extremely tough this past year. On a personal level, I knew individuals who died from COVID. Making sure our kids had food on the days we were shut down since we are a low-income district was important. Our food director made sure the kids could get lunch even when school was shut down."

Engleman said she started doing crafts again to keep her mind off COVID and her students.

"I spent more time watching silly videos too," she said. "Talking with my co-workers helps a lot too. They really understand how frustrating it is working with students online."

Keegan said she de-stresses with outdoor activities, including hiking, kayaking, gardening and fishing. She is looking forward to reading for pleasure again and spending time with family.


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