In Jefferson and Rapides parishes in Louisiana, more than half of early ed teachers who were recently surveyed are making less money than before the coronavirus pandemic. More than 40 percent are experiencing food insecurity. Eighty-five percent of teachers are worried that children will come to school sick and more than half are worried that they will have to go to work while sick. And nearly 1 in 5 have spent their own money on supplies like face masks and cleaning supplies. All this stress is taking a toll on teachers: Nearly 40 percent of those who responded reported clinically relevant signs of depression.

These findings, which were published in a new report by EdPolicyWorks at the University of Virginia and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, are focused on Louisiana but echo concerns from across the country. As child care centers have reopened nationwide, the educators are facing stress from strict new state health and safety regulations, ongoing Covid-19 outbreaks and financial concerns about the viability of the businesses where they work. Yet many early childhood educators have no choice but to return to their jobs. “I could probably die if I go back to work,” one Louisiana teacher said in response to the early ed survey. “But I have to.”

Nearly 40 percent of early childhood teachers in Louisiana who responded to a recent survey reported clinically relevant signs of depression.

As the Trump administration pushes states to open schools, K-12 educators will soon face many of the same concerns as their early childhood colleagues. And many were already dealing with mental health challenges: only a month into school shutdowns, teachers were already reporting feeling exhausted and stressed.

Experts say that’s why it’s critical that the conversation to reopen schools consider teacher mental health and acknowledge what they will face when they enter the classroom. “It’s urgent now that we are not only tracking the trauma load of teachers, but also recognizing they are going to be experiencing a great deal of vicarious trauma,” said Michelle Kinder, a licensed professional counselor who recently co-authored a book about how to lower chronic stress for teachers. In addition to experiencing their own trauma from the coronavirus pandemic, Kinder says teachers will also take on additional stress as they support their students. “We are going to see that play out as [teachers] hold the tension, stress, grief and anxiety of their students.”

Research shows teacher stress can contribute to low teacher retention rates and impact teacher-student relationships. About 20 percent of teachers nationwide who were surveyed in late May said they were unlikely to return to teaching if schools reopened in the fall.

To better support teachers who do return, experts say schools need to include teacher mental health and well-being in their reopening plans, regardless of whether they are opening in person or online. “Schools have to look at their strategic plans both for the fall and beyond the fall and reframe those plans,” said Kevin Baird, chairman at the Global Center for College & Career Readiness and one of Kinder’s co-authors. Teachers must feel safe and have the tools they need to address the social and emotional needs of their students before they feel pressure to teach their curriculum, he said.

“It’s not just about class size, it’s not just about pay level, it’s not the number of hours of professional development. Do we actually care about them as a whole person?”

Jamie Candee, CEO of Edmentum.

New supports for teachers should go well beyond face masks and shields, said Jamie Candee, the CEO of Edmentum, an online learning platform. Some districts have already taken some steps, such as encouraging teachers to take days off for self-care and setting boundaries between their work and personal lives. Other districts have provided virtual support groups to teachers that are facilitated by mental health counselors. And online platforms can help support these efforts, Candee said. Edmentum trains consultants who work with teachers that use their platform in “holistic supports” which means taking time during professional development sessions for personal reflection, encouraging teachers to take time for themselves and asking teachers to discuss their thoughts and fears about their classrooms.

Candee said these types of steps are important to help teachers working with students of all ages feel safe and better able to connect with their students. “It’s not just about class size, it’s not just about pay level, it’s not the number of hours of professional development,” she said. “Do we actually care about them as a whole person?”

For early childhood educators, many of whom have already been back in their classrooms working with students for several weeks after pandemic-related closures, the need for similar initiatives, and even basic health services, is dire, the Louisiana report found. Twenty percent of the child care teachers surveyed don’t have health insurance and nearly 75 percent of teachers don’t have sick leave. And equally important are efforts to address the mental health challenges and depressive symptoms that teachers are reporting, wrote the authors of the report. “These challenges, if unaddressed, will have long-term implications for these teachers for the children they care for and educate, and for society.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about teacher mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.