As the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system heads into summer break, conversations with two teachers from the same elementary school reveal that they expect to deal with the consequences of COVID and the Uvalde school shooting for years to come.  

The leader of a new mental health care initiative to support teachers says her experience with New Yorkers after 9/11 supports their expectations. 

“I was still working in New York at 9/11, and we were all prepared to have the phones ringing off the hook right after 9/11,” said Mary Frawley-O’Dea, executive director at Presbyterian Psychological Services. “And it didn’t happen right away. I got more referrals or more people wanting to come in, weeks, months, even a year or more after 9/11 was quote-unquote ‘over.’ Because it was then that people were noticing, gosh, you know, I’m still not sleeping, I’m still having nightmares.” 

Frawley-O’Dea leads a new program that adds free mental healthcare support for teachers in addition to law enforcement, healthcare workers, and first responders. The program, revealed on May 13, provides five free sessions and a discounted rate afterward. During the program’s launch, Frawley-O’Dea discussed the residual impact of COVID and the responsibilities piled onto teachers. On May 24, 19 children and two teachers were shot to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and 17 others were injured. 

The Impact of Uvalde

Stephanie Brubaker Magoon, who teaches fifth grade at Matthews Elementary School, and Julie Moffat, who teaches fourth grade, cannot talk about Uvalde without crying. They’re also concerned about the procedures they practice in active shooter drills. 

“I cried a lot, I did lots of crying,” Magoon said. “I kept thinking about my students like, oh my gosh, that could have been me. Because they were all 10 and 11 that were just killed. I was anxiety ridden and did not want to come to school the next day. I was scared.” Her mind raced through details, like how to get her students through classroom windows, which don’t pull forward, and how door handles and locks work.  

“The resources officer told us about a rope to tie around our door so an intruder couldn’t open it, and he did say I could stand on the window to break it down,” Magoon said. “But there needs to be a tool in the classroom. That kind of stuff hits you.”  

Matthews Elementary School staff were advised not to discuss the shooting and to send students who asked about it to a school counselor, the teachers said. Moffat wanted to have a serious conversation with her students about their classroom plans. The response protocol to active shooter situations has evolved, but implementation isn’t completely clear.  

“What we’ve been told before was to tell the kids to get up under the desk. And the officer came in and said that’s absolutely not what they want us to do. If we hear someone in our building we are supposed to get out the window and run,” Moffat said. 

“You have to tell [students] ahead of time and have this conversation and say, ‘If it happens, this is our plan, this is what we’re going to do.’ It feels like it empowers them a bit like, yeah, we can do something about this.” 

Students in Moffat’s fourth-grade class asked if they could use scissors or a pencil to stab someone who makes it through the door. “Absolutely,” she told them. During current active shooter drills, Moffat said they practice gathering in a corner of the room. But they have never practiced working with the windows. “We don’t get to practice what we are supposed to do because we don’t really want to, it’s a scary thing,” she said. “You just hope that you’d be prepared.”  

Impact of  2 Years of COVID

Teachers are now asked to be social workers, disciplinarians, playground guards and parents, Frawley-O’Dea said. 

“When I first started teaching I feel like it wasn’t so stressful because I didn’t have so many behavior problems,” Magoon said. She believes discipline has dropped because parents are just tired. “They are working, they’re doing the best they can and when it comes to the end of the day, they’re just done.”  

After two years of Zoom school during COVID, kids didn’t know how to act when they came back to school, Magoon said.   

“Kids didn’t know how to walk in the hallway, sit in their seats. They would get up whenever they want to just get water, go wash their hands, go to the bathroom, and do whatever when I’m in the middle of a lesson. It’s back to square one. You can’t blame them, they have to learn all over again, but it was a lot of work.” 

Support from parents on behavioral issues is often lacking, Moffat said. “I had a parent call me and say they needed help on getting their child to behave at home.” 

Magoon believes COVID created student mental health issues. “A lot of the kids were left at home while their parents went to work,” Magoon said. “So they had to fend for themselves and the kids have a lot of issues there.” 

Parents Are Tired and Teachers Are Too

Behavioral issues have become a burden on parents, Magoon said. “It shouldn’t be my job to teach students respect,” Magoon said. “Parents need to teach that. Parents want to be their kid’s best friends… I don’t believe parents are parenting.”  

Magoon has taught for 25 years and now teaches the children of students she taught 20 years ago. Her first generation of students often still had one parent at home. This generation, she said, has no one at home. 

Magoon and Moffat believe homework is a waste of time for elementary school kids. “But reading is very important,” Magoon said. “Kids don’t see their parents reading anymore so they don’t read either. Instead, they see their parents on their phone.”  

New Bricks Piled Onto the Backs of Teachers Regularly 

Moffat and Magoon also believe the state of North Carolina devalues teachers. “The education system treats teachers like second-class citizens,” Magoon said. Teachers are disappointed that the political candidates who might help them don’t get voted into office. 

Classroom sizes have increased to 30 or more kids in a class with only one teacher, they said. State government officials cut compensation for teaching board certifications, and don’t pay extra for master’s degrees. Teachers lack independence on curriculum issues in the classroom, and many teachers need two jobs to get by.  

“I’ve been in my job for 25 years and I still need to have another job,” said Magoon. She tutors after school, and she said other teachers work nights at a second job before returning to work the next morning. 

Worries About the Next Generation of Educators

Magoon is concerned about how to attract the next generation of teachers. She advises young people not to enter education. 

“If they do go into education, I tell them not to work in the state of North Carolina,” Magoon said. “I tell them to go to other places, to look somewhere else. Because I feel that the state of North Carolina has really let down teachers to shame.” 

Palmer Magri is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news. Her summer work is supported by the James E. Rogers Research Program.