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Local Teachers, Districts Find Ways to Cope During COVID

By Terri Marshall

Teaching ranks near the top of the list when it comes to occupations fraught with challenges brought on by the COVID pandemic. Let’s face it, teaching has never been easy, but imagine mastering distance learning at a moment’s notice. In many instances, these dedicated educators also juggle the needs of their own children while soldiering on.

So how are local teachers holding up? And is there anything that school districts can do to help with pandemic burnout?

A Never-ending Balancing Act

When the pandemic forced local schools to close in the spring, Blessed Francis Seelos Academy second grade teacher, Lauren Skrastins, faced the challenges of teaching from home while managing her children’s remote learning schedule.

“In the spring, everyone was home. I have two school-age children, and my husband also works from home,” said Skrastins. “We made it work by setting up a space for everybody to work. This gave each of us a little bit of separation. We also made sure to differentiate between school or work time and quality family time.”

Like most area schools, Seelos Academy reopened in-person learning for the new school year, but also provided a remote-learning option, which makes balancing the two a unique challenge.

Now in her eighth year of teaching, Skrastins still considers herself fairly new to the game.

“I’m still a fairly novice teacher, and I have to say that since March, I’ve never worked harder or been prouder of what myself and my colleagues have put forth,” she said. “This has been the most challenging and most rewarding teaching year I’ve ever experienced. That being said, I do hope it’s only one year!”

Passion and Determination Triumph

A teacher for more than 30 years, Theresa Huerbin, also from Seelos Academy, hasn’t let COVID ruin the love she has for her profession.

“I love what I do. It’s my passion,” said Huerbin. “I love the students and their stories, and I cried every day when we were stuck at home!”

Determined and committed, Huerbin refuses to let any roadblock stop her from providing the best possible learning experience for her fourth-grade students. She spent the summer immersing herself in Google Education tools for six to eight hours daily, and as a result, she mastered Google tools for the classroom and earned Google’s Educator Level 1 Certification.

"To promote learning and reinforce skills that my students need as they move on to fifth grade and beyond, I use what I learned to create motivational, game-like activities to engage them," she explained of her approach.

The support Huerbin and other Seelos Academy teachers receive from the school’s administration is paramount to their success.

“The principal is at our doorstep anytime we ask him for anything. We can also text him throughout the day as necessary,” said Huerbin.

As for pandemic burnout, Skrastins keeps a positive attitude. “It’s not necessarily burnout, but teachers have to be flexible. We have to be able to adapt and adjust quickly,” she said. “I think that’s been the entire experience for COVID personally and professionally. You have to maintain some sense of normalcy, otherwise you’ll go crazy!”

Little things also mean a lot. At Seelos Academy, the PTG (Parent Teacher Group) showed their appreciation for the work being done by teachers with individually boxed lunches and gift cards for Thanksgiving. “The support we have from our families, students, colleagues and administrators has been wonderful,” said Skrastins.

Strategic Planning Helps

Bart Griffith, president of Shady Side Academy, said that planning is paramount when it comes to taking care of its teachers.

“First and foremost, having an informed and proactive health and safety plan probably goes the longest way to ensuring the emotional and psychological well-being of our teachers,” he explained.

Shady Side Academy has planned an extensive return-to-campus testing program for its 1,100 students and 300 employees in January, following winter break. This investment provides peace of mind for teachers and administrative staff. While the majority of students attend in-person classes now, remote learning is also an option.

Shady Side also offers other resources for those who may want more support. “Mental health resources are available to our faculty through UPMC and our insurance provider,” said Griffith. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all support system, and we’re trying to offer options that work for everyone.”

Flexibility and Gratitude are Key

The Shaler Area School District currently provides three instruction models: traditional, hybrid and virtual. Superintendent Sean Aiken believes that flexibility has been paramount to managing the ever-changing environment.

“This year is challenging for all of us, and it is so important for each of us to find opportunities to step away and recharge,” he explained. “I regularly communicate with our staff to encourage them in the work that they are doing and remind them to disconnect and focus on their own mental health.

“With the negativity of the current situation permeating all around us, it is important to look for the good and find ways to express gratitude during difficult times,” he added.

Despite all of the uncertainty, pivoting and stress they’ve experienced—both at home and in the classroom—dedicated local teachers and school administrators have managed to keep it all together while finding that elusive ‘bright side’ we all crave. Their leadership is inspiring not only to students and parents, but to everyone struggling to make it through the pandemic.

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