Facing Utah's Back-to-School Medusa

Remember when school shootings were the biggest fear for students and teachers? COVID-19 is the new bullet as today's largest teacher safety fear in Utah.


Linda T. Kennedy

8/6/20205 min read

If you asked Utah teachers about school safety in years past, they probably would have mentioned school shootings. This year, though, Utah teachers consider coronavirus their biggest safety threat. They'll remember 2020 as the year teachers held picket signs at the state capitol with words such as, "I'll stand between a student and a bullet, but I can't stop COVID-19."

"School shootings are really very rare and, therefore, an abstract idea for many of us," said Steven Phelps (CQ), a math teacher at Alpine School District and an organizer of the teachers' rallies. "Covid on the other hand, is on our front doors and in our community. Just as teachers try and protect students in other cases, we are also trying to protect our students as well on this current crisis."

Protection for teachers is as much about mental health as it is physical safety, say Utah education psychologists. Just as every school district faces different challenges with the COVID-19 virus transmission, they said, (Utah's largest school district, Alpine, has 8,271 (CQ) confirmed cases in their area, and Utah's smallest school district, Duchene County school district, has 83 (CQ)), the impact of the virus, mentally, will vary widely as well.

"Some people might have had this
effect their family so much that to them, it's obvious why it may be dangerous to go back to school with this situation," said Jason Basinger (CQ), a school psychologist and a member of the trauma team at the Utah Education Association (UEA). "But others might not have experienced it and not fully understand why there's even talk about not returning to school."

Mind over Matter

Back-to-school teacher stress has to do with cognitive dissonance, mental discomfort when a person has conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors, said Janiece Pompa (CQ), a professor at the University of Utah Educational Psychology Department.

"When people in authority disseminate information then say the exact opposite the next day, then people get the impression that the authorities don't know what they're talking about and that's very scary," said Pompa. "Then some people decide they're going to have to be their own authority and many of them will go to different news sources and cherry pick the point of view they want to believe."

How teachers and students cope with the mental challenges of returning to schools during the pandemic also has to do with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), said Basinger.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ACES are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, such as domestic violence, abuse, and a negative home environment. As of last year, 61% (CQ) of adults had experienced at least one ACE, and 16% (CQ) had four or more types of ACEs. The more ACES a person has in their history, the harder it will be for them to cope with mentally stressful situations.

"Whether it's substance abuse in the home, or whether its mental illness or divorce, or other things affecting the home life, that can be stressful on a child and make it hard for them to deal with future challenges and that can affect their physical and mental health," Basinger said.

That's why, Basinger said, a difficult home environment might make the school the better place for some teachers and students to be.

"Some families may have had loss of a job, or some families might have close living quarters and it might be more stressful for them to stay at home
,” he said, “and so in some ways, that home environment can cause more harm for a child to stay in that environment 24 hours a day."

No Space for Spacing

While going back to school may be a better option than staying home for some teachers and students, others might have fears about going back to the classroom by the fact that there's not much they can do to stay physically safe in Utah's school buildings. Before the pandemic, Utah schools were a "hot spot" for overcrowded classrooms.

According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Utah elementary schools have 27 (CQ) students per classroom, and high school classrooms have an average of 32 (CQ) students per classroom ­well above the national average of 21 (CQ) elementary students and 27 (CQ) high schoolers. Only California and Nevada have higher student-per-classroom numbers.

That's going to make social distancing, which is about 6 (CQ) feet according to CDC guidelines, impossible, said Phelps.

"We've heard from experts all along that social distancing is the most important way to prevent Covid spread," he said. "We're about to send kids 3,000 adults and high school kids into some high schools in Utah. Nothing on this scale has been tried during this Covid outbreak."

When it comes to social distancing, Salt Lake City School District's reopening plan said, "Students will practice social distancing from their arrival at school through departure." It does not specify how school staff members will enforce it. That will be up to the individual schools and teachers,
said Mark Peterson, (CQ) public relations director at the Utah State Board of Education.

"The board sets guidelines for curriculum, but not health in the schools," he said.

Facing the Fear Factor

Basinger said that since the most effective plans for teachers and students going back to school will vary, it's important that teachers address their individual fears now, before going back to school. Currently, with other Salt Lake educators at the UEA, he's leading trauma-informed instruction workshops to help teachers cope.

"The key differences are the resilience factors that people have already in place," he said. "If people already have a great social network, a supportive environment or they have good health - there's certain things that will probably act like buffers and that way it doesn't turn into toxic stress."

Pompa agreed, saying that the pandemic isn't the same kind of traumatic experience that's on the level of experiences such as sexual or physical abuse.

"It's the kind of trauma that's very inconvenient and very sad but once we're able to return to a more normal level of interaction with each other it will be like 'oh, okay, that's in the past, now we can move forward,'" she said.

In the meantime, Pompa said there are a couple of trauma-coping techniques that are useful to helping adults. First, she said, teachers can draw on the internal resources they already have.

"They can say, 'I've overcome so much in the past and I'm going to marshal my resources and I can do this because I'm building on the success I've had in my past,'" she said.

The other coping technique Pompa suggests is for teachers to realize that the pandemic is time-limited.

"This is very real for us right now, it's been very real for five months, but look ahead," she said. "Sometimes we'll have people in their minds go through that and then look back at a distant memory of what's going on now so that they're holding both situations in their minds – today's situation and the future looking back and that seems to help quite a bit."

Photo by: Alexandra Koch