NAIS Research: Student and Teacher Wellness During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Following the disruptions of everyday life caused by the novel coronavirus, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health organization on March 11, 2020, many schools across the United States shuttered their doors and sent students home in an effort to keep communities safe. Closures had broad impacts on the lives of many—from loss of routine and valuable in-person connection, to serious concern for personal safety/security and that of loved ones.

Schools were faced with the challenge of delivering quality education to students amid unprecedented circumstances. To better understand the experiences of teachers and their students during spring 2020, a group of researchers from Loyola University Chicago, George Mason University, University of South Carolina, and University of Missouri designed a survey instrument to capture different aspects of teaching arrangements, schools’ support for teachers, and concerns about student wellness, among other topics.

In an effort to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased attention to racial inequities in the United States, researchers administered the online survey to K-12 teachers across 46 states. In coordination with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), teachers at independent schools were included in the survey, which was administered in the summer and fall of 2020.  

This report includes the findings from 413 teachers in the NAIS member schools that participated in the study.

Executive Summary

The widespread closures during the COVID-19 pandemic affected all areas of life in the United States. In response to the pandemic, schools were forced to shift their approach to teaching; 82% of teachers at NAIS schools who responded to an online survey report that their school moved instruction online, with half mainly implementing synchronous learning experiences. Nearly all teachers (96%) used this type of instruction more than three times a month. To communicate with students learning virtually, most teachers (84%) relied primarily on email, communicating with their students more than three times a week by email.

Though studies of teachers early in the pandemic indicated a gap in the technological literacy needed to quickly pivot to remote learning in the spring, NAIS teachers reported having the technical resources needed to deliver online instruction during the pandemic. Nearly all (97%) indicated that they received at least some support from their school in online instruction, and 93% indicated that they had access to a computer and internet with few or no problems.
As the primary person in the learning ecosystem of students, a teacher is well placed to identify the emotional well-being of those students. Teachers in the study noted widespread levels of anxiety and worry at levels higher than before the pandemic. Ninety-eight percent of teachers noticed anxiety or worry among their students at least occasionally, and 84% noticed depression at least occasionally. Nearly six in 10 teachers (56%) reported noticing student mental wellness issues more frequently than they had before the pandemic. Concerns about student health and safety were less frequent, though 12% of teachers reported occasionally having concerns about suicidal ideation, intent, or plan, and more than one-third (34%) noted occasional or frequent incidents of pandemic-related racial aggression, such as harassment of individuals perceived as Asian, a result of false accusations that Chinese students had “brought COVID-19” to the United States.
The pandemic had far-reaching and complicated ripple effects on families, including financial and relational challenges related to realized parent job insecurity, fear of income loss or family death, and parent frustration with juggling professional and personal demands. Teachers in the survey noted an uptick in certain student family concerns, such as students occasionally or often worrying about their family members becoming ill or dying (78%) and adults absent from home at least sometimes because of other caregiving or work responsibilities (72%). Family concerns were amplified by COVID-19, and 58% of teachers noticed these challenges more frequently than they had prior to the pandemic.
Students at NAIS schools are highly driven. In annual NAIS surveys of student engagement, students report being motivated by their desire to get good grades and by their desire to succeed. Amid the pandemic, students are feeling stress to perform. Teachers noted high levels of academic stress across the board. Ninety-eight percent of teachers reported student stress/anxiety about their work at least occasionally. This could be due in part to students feeling unable to do their work to their desired level; only 47% of teachers reported that students were often able to do their schoolwork as well as the students would have liked. A possible factor in student academic anxiety and perceived reduction in performance is lack of access to help with academic work; only 29% of teachers noted that students had frequent access to this support.
Nearly all teachers (98%) were able to respond to the student wellness issues they encountered, and 95% indicated that they took this responsibility upon themselves at least occasionally. But some teachers reported referring students to other resources available within their own school, such as mental health/support professionals or administrators (82% and 78%, respectively).  
Though many teachers (86%) feel confident in their ability to support students with wellness related issues and nearly a quarter (22%) agree strongly that they are able to manage their own stress at work, this job takes an emotional toll on teachers. Ninety-six percent indicate that they often (56%) or sometimes (40%) feel worn out by their work, and more than half (55%) often feel overwhelmed by their seemingly endless workload. However, the source of exhaustion does not appear to be rooted solely in supporting the wellness needs of their students; only 4% strongly agree that they feel overwhelmed by the wellness needs their students bring to school.
Finding support from resources within their schools, as well as the satisfaction teachers derive from being able to help their students, may be mitigating factors against teacher stress. Teachers reported most often seeking support in dealing with student wellness issues from teaching colleagues at their school, with 28% indicating that this was a frequent source of support. Teachers also reported seeking support from mental health/support professionals in their schools or from their administrators, though the percentages of teachers indicating that they often sought support from these groups were smaller (23% and 21%, respectively).
Across all types of support teachers sought, all resources were at least occasionally helpful, but support from mental health/support professionals and from teaching colleagues in their schools were characterized as often helpful by more than six in 10 teachers (66% and 64%, respectively). Despite notable challenges on the job, nearly all (99%) NAIS participants agree strongly (82%) or somewhat (17%) that they get satisfaction from being able to help their students, and 99% believe that they can make a difference through their work.

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