Teachers hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: August 26, 2022

In the 2019-2020 school year, 4 million schoolteachers served approximately 60 million children in the United States. Historically, teachers have experienced lower wages, greater imbalances in effort and reward, unhealthy lifestyles, higher levels of food insecurity, greater work stress, and more signs of poor physical and mental well-being. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have been subjected to a different level of financial crisis, exhaustion and burnout. As part of the Sharma Doctoral Fellowship, in partnership with Brighter Bites non-profit organization, two Sharma fellows, Fangyu Li and Nivi Parthasarathy, assessed the impact of social determinants of health on schoolteachers’ food insecurity and stress.

Brighter Bites is an evidence-based, school-based nutrition program that provides a weekly distribution of fresh produce and nutrition education to schools serving low-income populations. During COVID-19-related school closures from April to June 2020, UTHealth School of Public Health and Brighter Bites conducted surveys with participating parents and teachers to help determine subsequent programming efforts to support the families and schools. Data was collected from 685 teachers employed in 76 schools across five regions (Texas – Houston, Dallas, Austin; Southwest Florida; Washington, D.C.).

Approximately 85% of the teachers reported experiencing mental stress, and 30% of the teachers reported their households being food insecure during this time. A majority of the teachers were female, Hispanic, and had less than five years of teaching experience. Less than half of the teachers reported good general health, and 75% reported being concerned about their current social conditions. It was also seen that teachers who specifically reported experiencing stress were two times more likely to be worried about availability & affordability of food, employment status, financial insecurity, access to childcare, and access to clinic/doctor during the initial phase of the pandemic. Those who reported being food insecure were also more likely to experience poor overall health & mental stress and consume fewer fruits and vegetables than before the pandemic.

Notably, the Brighter Bites research and evaluation team at UTHealth School of Public Health observed the same findings in our studies.

“Since this research was published, we continued administering the same survey at the end of the school years in 2021 and 2022, and results have shown that teacher food insecurity and stress levels continue to remain at high levels, which warrant immediate attention,” said Dr. Shreela Sharma, Principal Investigator of Brighter Bites.

Strategies such as Brighter Bites that have a whole school approach, allowing teachers also to receive fresh produce and nutrition education, can help. Since teacher health and wellness also impact the child’s quality of learning, schools must implement teacher wellness strategies to mitigate the pandemic's impact and enhance well-being among teachers.