Safety is teachers’ #1 concern 

June 9, 2020 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor


ATA study shows many teachers feeling isolated and disconnected

School safety, student readiness and mental well-being top the list of teachers’ concerns as they look ahead to a return to school, shows a new study conducted by the Alberta Teachers’ Association. 

Other findings show that teachers are feeling isolated, exhausted and increasingly disconnected from their students and their students’ families.

Over a three-week period between April 27 and May 15, the Association surveyed more than 7,200 teachers and 900 school leaders about their experiences and perspectives during the pandemic. The survey covered five key areas: well-being, equity, technology use and online instruction, pedagogical practices and the return to public school buildings. 

“This research provides the Association with a very strong pulse of the profession during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and clearly identifies teachers’ voices on a variety of topics,” said Phil McRae, the ATA’s associate co-ordinator of research.

On the topic of returning to school, the research found three top concerns: school safety, overall student readiness, and the mental health and well-being of teachers, students and the community in general.

Regarding school safety, respondents were concerned about the adequate supply of personal protective equipment for teachers, maintaining physical distancing measures for students and teachers, school cleanliness and sanitization, accommodations for teachers with pre-existing health conditions and managing substitute teacher availability. 

When it comes to student readiness, among teachers’ concerns were declining student motivation and engagement, growing inequities accelerated by the pandemic, and child poverty and food insecurity.

Reporting on their own well-being, three quarters of respondents said they don’t feel the same emotional connection to their students as they did prior to the pandemic, and 63 per cent reported feeling isolated. Half of respondents reported feeling fatigued when they get up in the morning to face another day of teaching students at a distance, and 70 per cent reported being exhausted by the end of the day. 


A study of its members by the ATA documents concerns about the safety and well-being of both teachers and students.


Risk of compassion fatigue

With one third of respondents indicating that they are empathizing with the trauma of their students, the profession may experience a very high rate of compassion fatigue, McRae said.

Compassion fatigue refers to the emotional and physical exhaustion that can develop when helpers (i.e., teachers, nurses and others) are unable to refuel and regenerate as a result of their emotional labour and dedication to others. One of the main characteristics of compassion fatigue, as found within the research literature, is the experiencing of secondary (vicarious) trauma, McRae said.

“From this pandemic research study, the profession is learning that 30 per cent of Alberta teachers agree that they feel as though they are experiencing the trauma of some of the students they teach during the pandemic,” McRae said.

The study shows that 42 per cent of Alberta teachers agree that they are affected (or people are telling them that they are affected) by the emotions of students at this time. 

Teachers also identified several student populations who may be at risk, such as those living in poverty, in single-parent homes, those with special needs and English language learners. With the growing inequity across our society, these are populations that are vulnerable during the pandemic and need to be supported, said McRae.

He noted that the study will assist the Association in supporting members, and has been instrumental in informing its advocacy on a return to school buildings, and in constructing a forecast of the short, medium and longer term implications of the pandemic’s impact on Alberta’s school system. 

“It will also be used to conceptualize more sustained strategic shifts in policy and practice that emerge as Albertans transition out of the first waves of the pandemic and return to public schools across the province,” he said. ❚


Quotes from study respondents

What are your top two concerns or questions about your mental health and well-being in relation to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?

“I believe that the large class sizes and lack of educational assistants due to budget cuts will severely impact my ability to teach all children and have them all be successful. It is incredibly hard to provide one-on-one time with struggling or gifted students in an early elementary setting. 
Lots of programs are being cut that should be there to support our kids. I believe that some teachers in our profession will become burnt out from the complications of teaching online, then returning to the classroom with decreased resources to help out students. I feel for our students and families who deserve to have more support and have all their children be successful by having the necessary supports in place.”

“I feel sad and angry often. I feel disconnected from my students and my colleagues. I feel overwhelmed by the expectations to be working full-time from home, while also working with my own children on their home schooling.”


Representative sample

The ATA pandemic research study data has a confidence interval of plus or minus 1.5 per cent 19 times out of 20.


Teachers’ top three concerns on returning to school

1. School safety (student, teacher and school building)
  • Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for teachers
  • Maintaining physical distancing measures for students and teachers
  • Class sizes and COVID-19 safety protocols — a pervasive concern given existing large Alberta class sizes
  • School cleanliness and sanitization
  • Accommodation for teachers with pre-existing health conditions
  • Managing substitute teacher availability with teacher illness
2.  Overall student readiness for school re-entry (equity, poverty, curriculum and assessment)
  • Student motivation and engagement
  • Issues of equity, growing inequities accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Growing rates of child poverty and food insecurity concerns
  • Curricular gaps upon a return to public school buildings
  • Assessment challenges/opportunities; concerned with the burden of standardized testing
  • Declining skill development (social, emotional, cognitive, physical, behavioural)
  • Vulnerable student populations deemed at-risk, including those living in poverty, in single-parent homes, with exceptionalities (special learning needs/gifted), English language learners (ELL), First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, refugee students
3. Mental health and well-being (teacher, student and school community)
  • Appropriate, timely and accessible mental health supports for students, teachers, school leaders, school staff, parents and school community
  • Mental wellness and well-being supports
  • Psycho-social and physiological well-being
  • Physical literacy and health (free play, sports and recess)




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