It was April of this year when Mary Fraser-Hamilton started to feel things were falling apart.

The high school drama teacher at Peel District School Board was teaching online while juggling virtual school for her own young children at home. After a few months of pandemic teaching and parenting, she noticed she couldn’t think clearly anymore. Making decisions and articulating her thoughts became difficult. Her patience with herself and others was wearing thin. She found herself angry and frustrated with those around her.

“If I had a bad morning, I couldn’t adjust for that,” Fraser-Hamilton said. “There goes the day.”

Through her Chromebook screen, she noticed some of her students were equally struggling. What was once a collaborative theatre course became an independent-study film course. She couldn’t provide the extra support to those who needed it, and she couldn’t bear that. Students who were at risk of failing were completely left behind.

She felt she was letting her students down. “That took a real toll on my mental health, to feel that I wasn’t good enough.” Fraser-Hamilton decided then to take a short-term leave for the first time in her 13-year career in education, to recover from what became overwhelming feelings of stress and anxiety.

Fraser-Hamilton isn’t the only teacher to do so. According to the Peel board, 519 full-time teachers took a sick leave for three months or longer in the last school year, almost double the number of teachers who were on sick leave before the pandemic. And it’s not just Peel: at York Region District School Board, 711 teachers were on sick leave for three months or longer in the 2020-21 school year — an increase from 372 from 2018-19, before the pandemic.

At the Toronto District School Board, 808 elementary school teachers took a sick leave for three months or longer in the last school year — up from 388 in 2019-2020. GTA schools spent the majority of the second half of last school year learning online due to province-wide lockdowns amid rising COVID-19 cases. A similar increase in sick leaves, however, was not observed among secondary teachers at the TDSB.

It’s difficult to ascertain how many of those teachers went on sick leave for mental-health-related reasons, boards and teachers unions said, because the paperwork for long-term disability leave does not clearly distinguish between mental and physical ailments. But teachers continue to be absent at higher rates than before, both at the elementary and secondary level, and many of them due to stress.

“It has already been challenging” only a few weeks into the new school year, said Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of the union representing Peel elementary teachers. She added that about 160 teachers under her union remain on leave — more than triple the pre-pandemic rate. Fraser-Hamilton said that at her high school, staffing shortages have led to administrators working on-call to fill gaps.

Teachers and experts who spoke to the Star underscored high levels of persistent burnout in education workers not seen before. Teachers are worried about their safety and that of their students, and about their own families at home, and are struggling with a growing sense of helplessness as they navigate their changing role under COVID-19, where some of their students are still learning online.

High teacher absenteeism at some Ontario boards is an issue the Ministry of Education is aware of, said spokesperson Caitlin Clark, forcing it to extend eligibility for teaching candidates and retirees to fill the gap.

As students returned to in-person learning in September, teachers across boards say feelings of burnout have only been exacerbated.

“I don’t know how I’m still here,” said Fraser-Hamilton, who has since returned to teaching after her leave, but is still experiencing challenges. “I almost wish that I hadn’t taken my mental health leave last year, because this is worse.”


For Joe Pelliccione, the anxieties of pandemic teaching began early on. The physical education teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Scarborough spent most of the last school year teaching virtually from home when schools were shuttered. His twin boys in kindergarten were spread apart, one learning upstairs and one downstairs, while his wife, also a teacher, taught from the bedroom closet.

“As much as you try to do both, one of them has to give,” Pelliccione said of juggling teaching and parenting in the pandemic. He tried his best to focus on his classroom, but the stark inequities among his students made that difficult.

“You see what they have and what they don’t have, and it’s tough,” he said, adding some of his students live in low-incoming housing or motels on Scarborough’s Kingston Road. Some kids didn’t manage to log on to class for the entire year, and Pelliccione felt helpless.

“To say it was nothing but exhausting is a gross understatement,” he said, reflecting on the school year. “We limped into the summer, and most of it was spent recovering.”

It wasn’t long before Pelliccione’s anxiety crept up again, this time as the Ontario government and Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced in June a plan for a full return to the classroom that was heavily criticized as being thin on details. Pelliccione was faced with a dilemma: his aging father is ill, and a return to the classroom meant not being able to see his family in person for fear of bringing the virus home.

“I contemplated an unpaid leave because the thought of not being around my parents wasn’t something I was willing to stomach,” he said. He eventually decided to return to teaching in person as he didn’t want to lose his income, but he now worries about whether his classroom will be subject to a COVID outbreak, or that he’ll bring the virus home.

There are currently 515 schools across Ontario dealing with at least one COVID-19 case, according to provincial public health, amounting to some 973 known active cases, and three schools are closed. With vaccines still unavailable for children under 12, schools account for a third of COVID-19 cases province-wide.

For teachers and parents, the threat of catching COVID is ever-present. Adding to Fraser-Hamilton’s anxiety was watching two of her children test positive after a recent outbreak at their school, forcing them to self-isolate. Despite efforts to create cohorts of students and to promote social distancing in the classroom, Fraser-Hamilton and other teachers said curbing the virus is impossible when students still share common spaces like the cafeteria or school bus.

“I go to work each day knowing that in-school outbreaks happen regardless of all the hygiene theatre,” Fraser-Hamilton said.


Teachers’ heightened anxiety has been noted in mental health research over the course of the pandemic. According to polls by Mental Health Research Canada, self-reported anxiety rates among teachers went up 53 per cent since the pandemic began — higher than any other profession, including nurses, who saw a 50 per cent increase.

While anxiety rates increased, MHRC found it didn’t translate to a stark rise in diagnosed anxiety and depression among teachers. Michael Cooper, vice-president of development at the not-for-profit research organization, said this is likely tied to higher levels of resilience reported among teachers than other professions.

“Teachers are a profession that shows high degrees of stress management, and I think that bodes well for them,” Cooper said. But he added it’s important to note that, like the general population, some teachers are particularly vulnerable to heightened anxiety and may not be coping as well as the average.

Researchers at Brock University are attempting to get a detailed understanding of the mental state of Ontario teachers during the pandemic through surveys and one-on-one interviews. Dawn Zinga, a professor and associate dean of the faculty of social sciences, said the desire to do so came from research on how youth were adjusting during the pandemic.

“One thing that kept coming out is a lot of students felt disconnected from their teachers, and some even mentioned they were worried about their teachers,” Zinga said. “We realized the one voice that was missing is teachers themselves.”

The research remains in its early stages, but Zinga and her research partner, associate professor Danielle Molnar, said key themes have emerged in interviews conducted with teachers so far. One of them is lack of support from their employers, the ministry and the public. Another is the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, and how that’s affected their approach to teaching and their workload.

“The best word to capture a lot of teachers’ experiences is burnout,” Molnar said.

Some unions say they worry about teachers’ career longevity. At Peel District School Board, more elementary teachers have been contemplating early retirements or resignations, said Jessica Cooper, a grievance officer with Peel Elementary Teachers’ local.

“I’ve definitely seen members resign midway through the year, during the pandemic, and at the end of the year,” she said. “Have we seen a mass exodus? No, I wouldn’t say we have, at least in Peel local, but is it something that school boards and the ministry should be worried about? Absolutely.”

Like Mental Health Research Canada, Brock researchers also noted a surprisingly high level of resilience among teachers surveyed so far.

“A very common theme across all teachers is how excited they were to see the kids and to go back into the classroom,” Molnar said. “Of course, there’s a high level of uncertainty and stress that goes with that, but it’s almost like seeing the kids is kind of a beacon for them.”


Pelliccione said the resilience is not surprising. “A lot of teachers live to teach,” he said. “It’s what defines them, it’s what drives them,” he said, adding many in the profession work beyond their retirement date because of the sense of fulfilment the job traditionally brings.

Gurpreet Rai, a kindergarten teacher at the Peel board, said her students are a great source of joy. Since returning to the classroom in person, it’s been heartwarming to watch her students make connections and be kind to one another. “I love kindergarten, because these kids are so innocent and they just remind you of what matters,” she said.

But many say feelings of anxiety now surround every other aspect of teaching: trying to understand the impact of the pandemic on parents and, by extension, their children, while trying to support kids in the classroom and keep the virus at bay.

In Fraser-Hamilton’s drama class, the anxiety has been largely tied to the hybrid model of teaching — where half her students are in the classroom, while the others learn from home. The model has been heavily criticized across school boards that have adopted it, including at the TDSB, Peel and York Region.

“The thing I don’t think people understand about hybrid learning is that you cannot teach the way you used to teach,” Fraser-Hamilton said. “I’ve had to reinvent my entire curriculum to adapt to this model.”

Fraser-Hamilton said after her mental health leave, she spent much of the summer rebuilding lessons, creating units and hoping her ideas would work under the hybrid model. But eight weeks into the new semester, Fraser-Hamilton said it’s become abundantly clear the hybrid model is not working.

“In the last week alone, I’ve had about five or six emails from students who have not been attending class and citing mental health reasons for why,” she said, adding most of the students struggling are learning from home. “I have no energy or reserve to support them other than pointing them in the right direction, and that’s heartbreaking for me because I can’t do more.”

At a committee meeting for the TDSB on Oct. 14, more than a dozen teachers spoke before trustees about the challenges hybrid teaching has presented in their classrooms and for their mental health, with most expressing worries their online students are silent, disengaged and isolated.

“Imagine being a teacher and going to work daily and knowing that you cannot possibly do the best job teaching all of your students,” said one TDSB high school teacher. “We are exhausted. We are increasingly suffering from mental health concerns, and stress, because we are being asked to somehow make this work, when it clearly does not,” said another.

As of publication, no GTA school boards have revised their hybrid model. Fraser-Hamilton said what’s been most frustrating is watching teachers’ concerns get largely ignored by boards and the Ministry of Education.

Fraser-Hamilton said for many teachers, their well-being is tied to that of their students. “If the classroom I am working in and the policies I am working under are causing me harm, just imagine what they are doing to children.”

Teachers also pointed to their employers’ lacklustre response to increasing rates of burnout. Some say their board sent them mental health webinars, encouraging them to prioritize their wellness by ensuring they’re eating enough, getting a good amount of sleep and managing their stress in a healthy way.

Fraser-Hamilton said these webinars feel disingenuous when boards don’t create an environment where teachers and their students can thrive. “The analogy that I use is like they’re hitting me with a stick and offering me an icepack at the same time,” she said.

In a statement to the Star, Peel District School Board said it recognized the mental health struggles of its staff, citing a tumultuous period of coping with COVID, as well as the impacts of a 2020 provincial report detailing systemic anti-Black racism at the board. “It is understood that providing wellness reminders and activities are not enough,” said spokesperson Malon Edwards. “Systemic environmental changes are needed and problems need to be acknowledged.”

Meanwhile, the board defended its hybrid model, saying it enables students to be taught by the same teacher regardless of whether they’re online or in person, allowing for minimal disruptions should a class or a group of students be forced to isolate and learn online. Edwards added teachers also have 24/7 access to mental health counsellors.

“Peel District School Board’s leaders and support staff are here to help and offer healthy, beneficial solutions,” Edwards said.


What’s kept teachers resilient through the challenges of the pandemic, kindergarten teacher Gurpreet Rai said, is relying on colleagues for support to get through pandemic schooling in absence of support from leadership. She is part of a group called Teaching Beyond the Surface, where teachers are sharing lesson plans for free to help one another. Others have leaned on Facebook groups for support.

“The resilience has been in the form of everyone having each other’s back, supporting one another, having spaces to vent,” Rai said.

There has also been small hope since returning to the physical classroom — Fraser-Hamilton said she’s watched some students slowly open up and get comfortable with one another again. “So many times in the last 19 months, I’ve said ‘Oh my god, it’s always going to be this way, isn’t it?’ ” she said. “But there are flashes and moments where my students show me that it may not.”

She and others remain worried about their online students and others who are falling behind. Teachers said they hope their leadership recognizes they are on the brink of breakdown, and can no longer afford to fulfil their responsibilities without systemic changes and additional support. For many, that starts with the province prioritizing the funding of schools through COVID-19 relief funds.

“I’d like to see more staff in schools,” Fraser-Hamilton said, including qualified staff who can help support students in crisis, as teachers continue to be the first point of contact for students who are struggling with their own mental health.

Many teachers want to see a hybrid model entirely eliminated in favour of online-only and in-person-only classrooms. For Pelliccione, even access to better personal protective equipment, beyond a surgical mask, and better ventilation would go a long way.

The province maintains enough funding has been allocated to schools, saying it has put more money into public education “than any government in Ontario history” in the last three years, including a 400 per cent increase in mental health funding for schools.

But for teachers, the reality is different. Fear of the unknown has become constant, and many say they are running on empty.

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_