Fostering safety and confidence as employees return to schools
President Donald Trump has suggested that schools should resume in-person classes before fall, and some governors seem willing to comply in some form or another. While the question of when is still being debated, the bigger challenge is how.
School districts across the country are already busy brainstorming about what the new classroom will look like and addressing logistical issues such as class size, cafeteria alternatives, and spacing of student desks. Signs will likely be posted throughout classrooms and hallways reminding students and teachers of the need to social distance, wash their hands regularly, and avoid touching their faces. But these changes only address the physical obstacles of restarting classrooms.
The true challenge is creating psychological and emotional stability in our schools despite the fact that prospects of a widely available, effective vaccine are still more than a year away.
Recognizing rising anxiety, depression during pandemic
Numerous mental health experts across the country have already documented a significant uptick in mental health issues largely as a result of the isolation and anxiety directly related to the COVID-19 crisis. Paladina Health, one of the largest providers of direct primary care in the country, for example, has seen a doubling of patients with mental health issues this past April compared with April 2019. Specifically, there was a 58% increase in patients whose chief complaint was anxiety and a 24% jump in depression issues. Such problems can manifest as insomnia, headaches, indigestion, or a lack of focus or productivity.
As you move forward with plans to reopen schools (or even if you plan to keep teaching online), it’s important to implement a holistic approach that addresses employees’ total needs—physical, mental and emotional.
School administrators need to be aware of these symptoms and recognize them as a call for help, even if the employee does not actually ask for help. Until a vaccine or proven treatment is available, employees will likely continue to be concerned about their own health, as well as that of loved ones. They may be distracted by the continual onslaught of negative news. So it is unrealistic to expect them to return to school the way they were or meet the same standards of productivity.
Transitioning to in-school work
Given this new reality, what should districts do to help employees make the transition to the workplace?
An important first step is flexibility, starting with paid time-off policies. Paid time-off and leave policies should be reviewed and updated to effectively promote the idea of not coming to work when sick. Employees should not feel guilty when taking time off to care for their own health or that of a loved one. And they should not be penalized if they don’t immediately return to pre-virus work schedules or productivity standards.
Here are seven tips for making school employees feel comfortable in this new work era.
- Involve employees in the process of creating safe workspaces. Many people feel a loss of control over their lives with all the shelter-in-place orders. Help to restore a sense of empowerment by encouraging active participation in changes. Consider the formation of an employee safety task force that can work collaboratively with administration to implement new policies and procedures.
- Communicate thoroughly, frequently and honestly. Provide ongoing updates on what the school district is doing to keep employees and students safe. Set expectations and encourage two-way communication regarding concerns and results.
- Encourage daily check-ins between staff and administrators. The importance of asking “Are you okay?” cannot be overstated, whether teachers are physically back in the classroom or still teaching online in the fall. Remote working arrangements make it especially tough to truly see how well someone is handling the stress of the situation. That’s why there is a need to actually over-communicate and check in during this period.
- Be prepared to make special accommodations for employees who are either at high-risk or who perceive themselves to be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Openly discuss specific concerns to provide the appropriate accommodation.
- Create a more relaxed, fun atmosphere that encourages employees to laugh. This could include whacky contests or other nontraditional activities.
- Focus on wellness. Some employees may have neglected their health during the shutdown. They may have missed scheduled doctors’ appointments due to exposure concerns; forgotten to take prescribed medications; strayed from healthy eating or exercise routines; or adopted unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking in excess. Promote healthier behavior in the schools by introducing daily meditations, yoga or guided breathing routines that could be hosted in the gym or auditorium during teacher breaks.
- Encourage employees to take advantage of district-sponsored employee assistance program resources. If you contract with an onsite health care provider, work with its mental health professionals to advise on treatment options for high-risk employees. Depression and anxiety are expected outcomes of the current pandemic, so be prepared to handle them before they become life-threatening.
As you move forward with plans to reopen schools (or even if you plan to keep teaching online), it’s important to implement a holistic approach that addresses employees’ total needs—physical, mental and emotional. Even if employees continue to work in the safety of their own homes, the virus will likely still take its toll on them. They will be understandably concerned about their students and frustrated with the lack of personal interaction. They may suffer from feelings of isolation and detachment.
As administrators, you are not expected to become mental health experts overnight. That’s why it will be important to solicit the help of outside professionals with expertise in the areas of wellness, well-being and mental health.
This is a different time that demands different strategies and resources. But districts that start planning thoughtfully and creatively now will be in a much better position to foster an inviting learning environment next semester.
Allison Velez is chief people officer for Paladina Health, a provider of direct primary care that partners with school districts across the county to provide health care solutions.
DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.