By Kimberly Cruz-Montalvo
Outreach Representative for Mesotheliomaguide.com
American teachers face a wide array of on-the-job risks, but a major one brought to light by the recent SARS-CoV-2 outbreak is disease transmission.
Linked to that risk is mental health, explicitly the stress caused by teachers’ concerns about getting sick.
Part of the discussion centers around the idea that teachers may not be able to avoid falling ill. The nature of their jobs — when not using virtual learning during a health crisis — requires exposure to dozens of students. They also interact with fellow teachers, who interact with a separate group of students. That increases the exposure, from either direct contact or a few degrees of separation, to around 100 potentially germ-carrying people every day.
How can teachers minimize their risk of disease transmission during the workday? And can we, as a society, better help teachers reduce their stress and improve their mental health?
The Risk Teachers Face Each Day
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that in order to prevent mass infection during an outbreak, groups of 10 or more should be avoided. While most schools are using virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are — by nature of their jobs — at risk of disease transmission throughout a regular school day.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average self-contained class sizes in American schools are:
- Primary schools: 22 students
- Middle schools: 17 students
- High schools: 18 students
Most schools include class periods where the students interact with students outside of their classroom, further increasing the risk of disease transmission.
The Stress of Teaching
Teaching is already a stressful career. Managing a classroom of 20 or so students for 6-7 hours a day is not a simple task. The fear of falling ill during flu season or other seasonal outbreaks piles on unneeded stress. Prolonged stress has been associated with increased risk of disease as it suppresses immune system functioning.
Stress can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, which is a serious concern for many teachers (with or without a health crisis going on).
Other stress factors related to illness include:
- Whether or not the teacher has sick days to take off if they get ill
- Having children or other dependents fall ill that need care
- Simply feeling guilt for calling out sick on more than one occasion
The FDA states that the cold and flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May, making up most of the average school year. Due to their contact with multiple students during the day, it is understandable that teachers may fall ill multiple times during the school year.
The CDC recommends the following actions for everyone, not just teachers, to avoid getting sick during cold and flu season:
- Get your yearly flu vaccine, especially if you or someone you love is a high-risk person.
- Avoid close contact with sick people and stay home if you are sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water (only use alcohol-based sanitizers if soap is unavailable).
- Regularly clean and disinfect common surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, and phones.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Take the medication your doctors prescribe you.
However, there are health factors that teachers often worry about that aren’t as easily avoided as the flu or common cold. Stress-induced hypertension, ergonomic issues, mold and asbestos exposure in older schools, along with incidents of workplace violence and school shootings, are all health threats facing teachers today. School districts across the United States are seeing lawsuits due to teachers developing mold-induced breathing problems, asbestos-caused mesothelioma and even SARS-CoV-2-related cases.
These often-unavoidable health and safety risks can cause considerable distress for teachers.
What Can Be Done?
For teachers to have better mental health in their profession, schools should make every effort to help teachers keep their classrooms clean and safe. An important factor is creating and enforcing strict regulations to prevent teachers and students from coming into class when they are feeling under the weather.
Schools should also improve workplace conditions by notifying teachers of exposure-related health risks, ensuring that their buildings are kept in good condition, and should provide de-stressing activities for their staff. Finally, state and local governments should make every effort to ensure class sizes are kept to a minimum to decrease both disease transmission and teacher’s stress levels. When teachers feel heard and respected, it lowers their stress levels and will lead to better mental health on the job.
CDC Says “Take 3” Actions to Fight Flu. (n.d.). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/preventing.htm
Mcleaod, S. (2010). Stress, Ilness and the Immune System. Retrieved from SimplyPsychology: https://www.simplypsychology.org/stress-immune.html
Schools and Staffing Survey. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass1112_2013314_t1s_007.asp