Long Island school districts, sensing the need for social and emotional support for teachers and staff during this COVID-19 pandemic, are setting up wellness rooms, embracing deep-breathing exercises and offering workshops on how to stay calm.
Educators, back to in-person classes full time, have battled through remote and hybrid learning, mask mandates and ever-changing guidelines, while also balancing their family's own health and welfare needs. To help, districts are providing "destressor" centers that can be used by staff and students, offering calming exercises such as yoga and guided meditation, and emphasizing healthy nutrition and the importance of getting enough rest.
"The pandemic really brought to the forefront the deep stress that teachers are under," said Jennifer Wolfe, a social studies teacher at Oceanside High School. "In my 25 years of teaching, the last two years have been the only times that I have seen districtwide, statewide systems embrace the idea that teacher mental health needs to be a concern."
A national study done earlier this year by the Rand Foundation found that teachers experienced many job-related stressors in 2020-21, with one in four considering leaving the profession. The study recommended that districts work with teachers to implement mental health and wellness support programs.
What to know
Local educators and school leaders said teaching became a more stressful profession during the COVID-19 pandemic because of mask mandates, changing guidelines and remote learning.
Long Island school leaders have been addressing the social and emotional health of teachers and staff through wellness centers.
In the Valley Stream 30 district, a classroom at Central Stream Avenue elementary school has been converted into a "Wellness Room," with black-out curtains and dimmable lights.
The study, conducted in January and February, found a much higher proportion of teachers reported frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general adult population. Many pandemic-era teaching conditions, such as technical problems while teaching remotely, were linked to stress, depressive symptoms, and burnout.
Teaching "is by far the most rewarding profession you could ever go into in our opinion, but it already was stressful," said Ron Gross, second vice president of the New York State United Teachers union and a former social studies teacher in the William Floyd district. "And what happened with the pandemic is we added a whole other dimension to this."
Some wellness plans were in place or being planned before the pandemic, Long Island districts said, but the health crisis has led to greater emphasis on these services.
Room equipped with aromatherapy diffusers
In the Valley Stream 30 district, a classroom at Clear Stream Avenue elementary school has been converted into a "Wellness Room," with black-out curtains, dimmable lights, custom-cushioned furniture, aromatherapy diffusers, a glowing, colorful cube light, and a sound system.
The room will open shortly for students, and teachers will be able to use it, too, as a place to take a few moments to destress. Staff will be able to hug a cuddle pillow, color in adult drawing books, read self-help books, use a rainstick to mimic the sound of gentle rainfall, or simply put their feet up, take their mask off and take a few deep breaths. The décor is color-coordinated to match moods. Teachers can sign up to use the room.
"We often take time for care for our children, but teachers need a safe space, a quiet space where they can relax and take a moment," said Jennifer Orellana, Clear Stream Avenue School's psychologist.
'We are trying to adopt the feeling of having wellness be part of our school culture.'
-John Singleton Jr., principal of Clear Stream Avenue elementary school in Valley Stream
Photo credit: Danielle Silverman
The room is included in the district's five-year strategic plan adopted by the school board, said Nicole Schimpf, the district's director of Special Services. The district, which enrolls about 1,400 K-6 children, is in the process of installing a similar wellness space this year at Shaw Avenue School, also an elementary. The space and its contents are being funded through federal grants, she said.
"We are trying to adopt the feeling of having wellness be part of our school culture and adopt it as part of our everyday lifestyle," Clear Stream Avenue School Principal John Singleton Jr. said.
Shannon Caines-Woodson, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, said staff already has met in the room, and the atmosphere "brings us back to that tranquil place."
"I was fully remote teaching last year, and that made a lot of demands on me — trying to figure out how to navigate the curriculum and teach students who were not with me and … that was a difficult thing to overcome, but we did it, and we made it. And looking back, it made us all stronger," she said.
Oceanside and Wyandanch are planning wellness spaces, while the Three Village district has had one since 2019. The Three Village space cost about $14,000 to equip, according to information Newsday obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. District officials said after it opened that funding came from an anonymous donation of $10,000, and the remainder from the general fund budget.
Some districts, including Uniondale, have purchased the Calm app — it includes guided meditation — for staff. In some of Uniondale's elementary schools, outdoor spaces for staff have been created with gardens, picnic tables and gazebos.
'We have had students who have lost family members, and people don’t see the impact that also creates on teachers.'
-Diana Sukhram, dean of the School of Education at SUNY Old Westbury
Photo credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca
Diana Sukhram, dean of the School of Education at SUNY Old Westbury, said districts should make sure teachers don't feel "neglected."
"Teachers have the same level of stress and anxiety as any other individual," Sukhram said. "We have had students who have lost family members, and people don’t see the impact that also creates on teachers."
Teachers union offering workshops
The New York State United Teachers union, which represents more than 349,000 educators and staff statewide, has provided workshops and counseling during the pandemic and has a social worker on staff to address members' needs. The union is offering a new seminar through its professional development arm — the Education and Learning Trust — on remaining calm and reducing stress.
"We have something called AOM — the Airplane Oxygen Mask principle," said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the teachers union. "It's taking care of yourself before taking care of others. And we have one [seminar] called Workplace Wellness, and that one has really helped address the secondary trauma they have been experiencing."
Wolfe, the Oceanside instructor who was named the state's 2020 Teacher of the Year, said there needs to be a change in the profession.
"We need to stop thinking about school as a nine-period day in 42-minute chunks and need to be focusing on making social and emotional learning and equity learning an add-on. It has to be the foundation on which we do other things," she said.
Day starts with deep-breathing exercises
The Freeport district already is offering some of those add-ons. The district long has placed a priority on the mental health and wellness of its students and staff, Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said.
In a partnership with the nonprofit International Association for Human Values, the district participates in the SKY program, which provides instruction on reducing stress, mindfulness and wellness. It includes yoga, guided meditation and other strategies.
"Self-care, in my opinion, is very important, and we emphasize that," Kuncham said.
Teachers, along with their students, begin the day with deep-breathing exercises. The district also held several workshops for staff over the summer with Northwell Health on topics such as nutrition, getting a good night's sleep and mental health strategies.
"I think we all have been shellshocked with everything that was thrown at us, but we are in constant communication and continuously messaging and always reassuring them [the staff] that we are there for them and we are all together in this journey," Kuncham said, adding he has felt the stressors, too.
"I needed to really keep my balance, too, so definitely I have continued my practices of meditation and breathing that was helping me. But on the other hand, I was eating and I wasn't getting in my 10,000 steps," he added.
Some districts set aside their superintendent's conference days — most held on Tuesdays — for staff development that includes mental health well-being. In Middle Country, those days include workshops on respectful conversation and careful listening, Superintendent Roberta Gerold said.
Middle Country also has brought in speakers to work with staff on how to foster positive energy.
The Oceanside district recently received a $125,000 state grant to create a wellness center at the high school that covers construction and contents. In the meantime, the district has created a virtual "Anchor Down" room, where staff and students can go to access resources that promote self-care, health and wellness.
In Wyandanch, school leaders are planning to add a wellness room to the middle school to be used by both students and staff. They've also added "Wellness Wednesdays" to the school year for staff, where they have participated in positive thinking activities.
"This new school year has required adjustments, and we have been putting some things in place to help the transition," Superintendent Gina Talbert said.