Many New York City educators said working conditions at schools have been among the worst they’ve ever seen this first week of 2022. A snowy commute Friday exacerbated staffing shortages and absenteeism since everyone returned from the holiday break. It was the icing on top of an extremely difficult few days that saw administrators scramble to cover classes while COVID-19 cases spiked among students and staff.
As studies show the toll the pandemic and remote learning have taken on students’ academic progress and mental health, New York City officials are pushing to keep all 1,600 public schools open for in-person learning as much as possible. But, as they enter a third year of disruption, some teachers and administrators are warning of a mental health crisis among educators that is becoming increasingly acute.
Here’s how some educators described their struggles this week, with responses edited for length. If you’re a teacher, administrator, staffer, or student and want to share your experiences, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject “schools”:
“I want parents to understand the reality of life in schools. Today, when our staff was so low we didn’t have enough teachers to cover all the classes, district personnel were sent to our school. They do not have teaching licenses so they were unable to cover any classes. With so many students and teachers out sick, awaiting results, or quarantining, classes cannot move ahead with content. We need to maintain ventilated spaces, now more than ever, so we are teaching and learning in our coats. My [teacher] husband and I continue to report to work, hoping we can actually do the jobs we are supposed to do each day. But we are resigned to the fact that we will work until we, or our children, become COVID positive.” – Rachel Levinsky, teacher in Manhattan
“I think everyone has felt overwhelmed. No one is just doing their job description. I got here at six in the morning [on Friday]. I plowed the sidewalk in front of the building with the motorized plow and cleared the entryway for staff and students. It was fun. I’m not upset because I know what remote instruction was. Students did not flourish socially and emotionally in remote instruction. In-person is definitely the ideal setting. Is it stressful? Extremely. But I do love my job.” – Jesse Pachter, assistant principal, Maspeth, Queens
“I was speaking to a principal. She had been up until like three o’clock in the morning hearing which teachers were coming in, which teachers weren’t coming in, trying to see how many subs she could get. I said, ‘How are you doing?’ And she said, ‘I’m doing okay. I’m doing great,’ as I saw the tear roll down her face, you know? They’re making it work and they’re putting up the best face for their staff, for their students, for the parents, for everybody. But the truth is they’re not okay.” – Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators union
”I’ve been teaching for 13 years, including a yearlong stint at a failing charter school that was shut down due to the founder’s embezzlement, and a semester-long displacement after Hurricane Sandy when our entire school was relocated to an attic of another school. The past few weeks have in some ways been more surreal and puzzling than any of those other experiences. We have huge numbers of kids and staff out, but the most unsettling thing has been the way things change minute to minute as people constantly test positive and just have to leave suddenly, midday. It’s been reminding me a lot of Michael Grant’s dystopian novel, Gone, in which students and teachers suddenly vanish from school in the middle of the day. Today due to the weather it was the most extreme—most classes had single digits.” – Nicole Dixon, teacher in Manhattan
“I think [teachers] are exhausted, and they’re stressed. At the same time, with all that…anxiety and stress that they had all week…the performances I saw in terms of instruction, in terms of caring for their students was something all New Yorkers should be very proud and thankful of.” – Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers union
“There are so many kids absent that what happens is I can’t teach the kids who are in school because I kind of have to wait for the other kids. So I’m just reviewing the same stuff and trying to be creative. I can’t teach the kids who are at home because I’m not allowed to and there’s not enough staff to do it. Everyone is working very hard and is physically and mentally exhausted. If we had just given people the option to have remote, even at the beginning of the year, it would solve so many problems. And so I’m just very frustrated, especially when people just say […] (about) teachers, if they don’t want to work then they should just quit. And it’s like we already don’t have enough people. So if you want every teacher to quit, then nobody will be teaching their kids.” – Special education teacher in Brooklyn who asked to remain anonymous
“There are students that are sick, my classes are half or less, there are not enough testing kits, or PPE. They gave me 12 masks. I have 180 students. There’s no transparency about how many cases schools have. I’m very worried. I have a 74-year-old mother, she lives with me, a cancer survivor. I’m afraid I’m going to give my mother COVID.” – Lorraine Liriano, teacher in Queens
“We knew this week would be tough, but not THIS tough. I’m okay, but mostly exhausted. It’s a lot to navigate and a lot to dodge honestly—I still haven’t caught COVID *knocks on wood* and I didn’t fall on my way to work today, so that’s something!” – Elementary school teacher in the Bronx who wished to remain anonymous
With reporting by Max Rivlin-Nadler