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‘When is this going to feel more possible?’: PPSD teachers describe challenges, anxieties of teaching during a pandemic

Teachers cite concerns over physical safety and mental health while juggling teaching responsibilities and ensuring the health, safety and education of students

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The last thing Cindy Castellone’s students need to know is that she’s angry, angry at a system said “can’t be fixed by me.”

Castellone is an English ESL teacher at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School in Providence, and said she’s not alone in her feelings.

“The staff, we’ve got to take our anger and process it in a way that they don’t feel it,” she said.

So far, the school year has caused a mix of frustration and concern for Castellone as she has had to navigate teaching during an exceptionally turbulent time. While her students’ mental and physical health is always at the front of her mind, Castellone also has to balance her own health concerns as she regularly comes into contact with high schoolers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Castellone, who said she has an underlying health condition that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, puts her especially at risk if infected with the coronavirus, hoped to be placed as a teacher in the Virtual Learning Academy, a fully remote learning option available to students of the Providence Public School District. 

The district indicated that they would give preference to teachers with underlying conditions when filling positions in the online platform, but, despite Castellone’s medical condition, she was not chosen.

“I am not sure why I was turned down, she said. “It was never really explained to me.” Castellone said her husband also has an underlying health condition

Laura Hart, a spokesperson for PPSD, said the district was proud of its focus on teachers’ medical needs in deciding placement for the virtual learning academy. “We figured out where we needed teachers. And the priority was given to those teachers who had a documented health issue,” she said.

But Hart did acknowledge that medical conditions were not the only factor that determined teacher placement. “If you were in a particular specialist category and there were several people with health conditions, and we needed only one of that specialist, then no, we wouldn’t make extra positions that we didn’t need,” she said.

While the pandemic has presented unique challenges, for teachers working in PPSD can feel stressful even in the best of times. 

For Maya Chavez, a Civics teacher at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, the challenges have only increased since COVID-19. 

“Working in urban education, working in Providence, has absolutely never felt sustainable” in the long run, Chavez told The Herald. “It’s my seventh year, and I am constantly (wondering), when am I going to have a work-life balance? When is this going to feel more possible? This year it is so much more, and then there is the added stress of feeling like we are not safe in what we are doing. That obviously weighs on me a lot.”

“I work 12+ hours a day M-F. I work every weekend,” she wrote to The Herald. She added that shortages in resources, challenges in communication with families, last-minute policy changes and safety are also major concerns.

Teaching during a pandemic has also taken a psychological toll on teachers, Chavez said. “The stress is real; the burnout is real; the lack of feeling safe is real. A lot of teachers with kids are really, really struggling, especially if their kids are not doing in-person school, … they have to arrange additional childcare.”

Chavez recounted a story of one of her colleagues emotionally breaking down in front of her while setting up for the SATs and PSATs Oct. 14.

“She broke down and burst into tears because she had just found out that her daughter’s childcare (center) had been closed, and she doesn’t have family available to fill in,” Chavez said. “She is not sure who is going to look after her kid and if she is going to have to use family medical leave. … People are feeling extremely overwhelmed.”

Hart said that there are district resources in place to help teachers with their mental and social-emotional wellbeing. “We have a contract with an employee assistance program that is available to teachers anytime they need it regarding emotional and mental health issues,” Hart said. 

The EAP has “been working with us to come up with professional development opportunities for people to talk about how to deal with stress during the time of COVID,” she added.

The district appreciates teachers during this difficult time, Hart told The Herald. “We are very proud of our team here; we are very proud of our educators,” Hart said “And we understand that it is a time of a lot of anxiety, and we are trying to put in place support (systems) to help folks manage.”

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