By AMANDA HOPE
COVID-19 has shaken up our country and in its aftermath, Americans will undoubtedly never be the same. The pandemic will directly or indirectly affect most, if not all, Americans. And with so many people worldwide who have fallen victim to this virus, some have referred to COVID-19 as the “great equalizer.” However, according to a report published by the CDC, current COVID-19 data suggest a disproportionate number of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups in the US with 33% of hospitalized patients being Black.
The fear surrounding COVID-19 especially hit home for me when I received unsettling news. My father informed me that several of our friends from my childhood church, which has an all-Black congregation, had tested positive for COVID-19. The very next day, he called me again to tell me that one of our friends had died from complications due to the virus. I was shaken and the news left me anxiety-ridden and scared. I found myself constantly worrying about the health of my family and conjuring up worst-case scenarios in my head. As an African American teacher who is now working from home, I have struggled to maintain focus on my work. I am desperately trying to find ways to healthily cope with my fears around COVID-19, so that I can be in a mental state that best serves my students.
So why is this virus disproportionately affecting my community? There are various factors, in my opinion, that put the African American community at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. These factors include being unable to work from home as many essential workers across U.S. cities are overwhelmingly people of color. It is also my belief that high rates of poverty coupled with the traumas of institutional racism have resulted in higher rates of African Americans suffering from chronic diseases and immunodeficiencies, subsequently, increasing our vulnerability to contracting COVID-19.
Like other industries, public education has been severely affected by this pandemic and will continue to be influenced by it when schools reopen. One such aftereffect could be an even larger number of African American educators leaving the classroom. One of the findings of If You Listen, We Will Stay, a report from the Education Trust and Teach Plus that examines why teachers of color leave the classroom at higher rates than their White peers, is that teachers of color frequently do not feel supported in their schools. It is no surprise that COVID-19 is taking a major toll on the mental and overall health of teachers of color. Compounded with this, many African American educators like me are in constant fear of the risk factors of COVID-19 in our community.
State, district and school leaders should be ready to address the traumatic effects of COVID-19 on African American educators. They can address this by implementing initiatives that support the mental health and wellbeing of all teachers and especially African American teachers. States and districts can create initiatives that will give schools the tools and resources to:
- Become trauma-informed spaces for teachers.
- Give educators greater access to mental health care professionals and wellness programs.
- Tailor wellness program offerings to ensure cultural affirmation and responsiveness.
Initiatives promoting mental health and wellness are crucial as teachers assist students in coping with their own traumas due to COVID-19. In addition to aiding teachers, districts can benefit from implementing wellness initiatives because when teachers feel mentally and physically well and safe, they are more equipped to fully support their students. Studies have shown that when employees are satisfied with their work environment, they are less likely to leave. Therefore, district wellness initiatives can potentially lead to higher teacher retention rates.
Districts can tailor their various wellness offerings to ensure that they are culturally affirming and responsive to their diverse teacher workforce. Having counseling that specifically addresses the traumas I witness in my community during the COVID-19 outbreak would benefit my mental health and my teaching practice.
As we all juggle the many uncertainties of this crisis, it is essential that districts begin to plan wellness initiatives that work to positively support all teachers and especially African American teachers. This will ensure that we can continue to do the essential work of supporting our students.
Amanda Hope teaches K-5th grade gifted and talented students at Nancy Moseley Elementary in Dallas ISD. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Texas DFW Policy Fellow.