There was no echo of footsteps down the school halls.

Classrooms were filled with dust, not students. The teachers’ break rooms were a ghost town. The school year started with an internet connection, a webcam and a computer screen.

The identity of every teacher and student was confined to a tiny black box.

“I didn’t really realize how deeply depressing and difficult it is to talk to a grid of squares,” said Rachel Prince, a high school teacher at Horizon High School.

Teachers and students have felt mentally exhausted since the end of March. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many school districts across Arizona to transition to an online learning environment. Many students said that their days are morphing into each other; they’ve lost motivation to finish piles of homework. Teachers feel overworked and are afraid their students aren’t grasping information without in-person learning.

Prince has been teaching for 28 years and misses her interactive classroom. She said that when the pandemic first started, she underestimated how long it would last.

“It started out as, ‘Oh look! This’ll be kind of fun,’” Prince said. “Then it very quickly slipped into trying so hard every day to bolster kids’ feelings.”

Rachel Prince in her classroom after a school day. (Photos by Autriya Manesni)

She said that teaching seniors especially was difficult because they were losing milestone moments. While her students were sad to lose their senior year, Prince said she felt broken emotionally.

“I didn’t realize how much I needed to see other people,” Prince said. “There have been days where at the end of the day I just lay my head on my desk and cry.”

Since their district adopted a hybrid method, Prince said it is harder to teach in a classroom while managing students on Zoom. Teaching on Zoom has no back-and-forth element and wearing masks in the classroom hides her students’ reactions, Prince said.

The biggest toll on her mental health is this feeling of exhaustion, loneliness and anxiety that lingers with her throughout the week. Prince is not alone in feeling this.

Remote teaching leaves teachers feeling anxious

Teachers have said that this school year has been the main stressor in their lives. In a survey conducted by Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, over 5,000 teachers said that the most common emotions they feel teaching during the pandemic were anxiety, fear, worry, overwhelmedness and sadness.  Anxiety was the highest reported feeling because teachers said they are not adapting to remote teaching.

The survey was also conducted before the pandemic, and it showed mostly the same results. However, teachers also said that they were happy to see their students every day. That helped them tolerate their low salary, unsupportive staff and uncooperative parents.

This survey shows that teachers felt drained regardless, but the pandemic has escalated that feeling.

Frank Infurna , a developmental psychologist, said that remote learning could result in both students and teachers having an unhealthy aging process.

“Over time, this is something that [will] wear down people,” Infurna said. “It really shows how much people crave and need human connection, even if it’s just in-person classes.”

Infurna said that human interaction is a powerful thing for mental health and without it, humans are losing their developmental skills.

Infurna said that Zoom classes and meetings get rid of a person’s individuality “when you’re just a headshot on a computer,” because people cannot express themselves virtually.

“When I’m in a Zoom call, I always love to see what people have in their background,” Infurna said. “That’s one way to kind of spice things up, but [Zoom] does take away from your own creativity and uniqueness as an individual.”

Students are feeling their daily routines slip away

A loss of individuality was something that Gabriela Reynaga , a sophomore at Arizona State University, experienced. Before the pandemic, she was excited to wear her favorite outfits, put on makeup and do her hair. As Zoom classes started to drag, she lost her routine.

“Honestly, it sucks,” Reynaga said. “If I knew that this was going to happen I wouldn’t have gone to school at all.”

She spends her days inside, no longer waking up early. She said she hasn’t learned anything and is simply absorbing information.

“Recently, I had to drop out of a class because I was just at the point of failing,” Reynaga said.

Gabriela Reynaga talks about her school year.

Tobi Mendivil entered his freshman year of high school feeling the same as Reynaga. He said that even though art is his passion, he dropped the class because it was taught with pre-recorded videos.

Despite the grade difference, Mendivil’s and Reynaga’s online school routines were similar, and their semesters have not been what they imagined.

“At first I wanted to get up early and get excited about things,” Mendivil said. “Then the first week went by, and I ended up getting up five minutes before class, still being in my pajamas starting my first period.”

Exhaustion is another side effect of remote learning

Students said they feel exhausted to look at their laptops for extended periods of time. Mendivil said he starts to lose focus during online classes. He is “hovering [his] mouse over the ‘Leave’ button” when he realizes it is almost the end of class.

Reynaga said that she gets frequent headaches as she looks at the screen and feels exhausted after she is done with her classes.

Lev Gonick, the Chief Information Officer for ASU’s University Technology,  said the reason students and teachers feel tired is that they are no longer using technology for entertainment. Gonick said that even though “life on the screen has been real for a long time,” there was always a boundary between technology and social life.

“The tsunami that is all things COVID has basically put us all into the same cauldron,” Gonick said. “Our personal and our fun part of our day is also now completely combined with our work and our studies.”

Lev Gonick talks about exhaustion.

With new technology, there will always be an adjustment period, Gonick said. Since people thought that this would be temporary, they are still adjusting.

This might be especially tough for elementary school teachers. Bailey Bednarz, a first-through-third grade teacher at Montessori Academy, said that trying to transition her in-person lessons to a virtual format has been tedious.

“I am having to create all the work the day before to give the lessons online,” Bednarz said. “It’s taking what we do in the classroom but having to make it again.”

Adjusting to technology, however, shouldn’t result in taking fewer breaks. Gonick said students and teachers neglect to take breaks to feel more productive.

“I think a lot of people are fatigued because we kind of realize, you don’t even need time to transition,” Gonick said. “All you’ve got to do is leave one Zoom session and hop into another one.”

Bednarz said it feels impossible to take a break sometimes. She now spends her lunch hour planning the next day’s lesson just to make sure she can come home and relax.

“When I make it through this year, I’ll feel like I can do anything because it is doing twice the job,” Bednarz said.

She teaches both in-person and online and struggles to create lesson plans. Being a Montessori teacher means they are to serve as guides for students to learn at their own pace, and that has been hard to do when she can’t physically be next to the students.

“The way I’ve set up my classroom is very spaced out,” Bednarz said. “It’s impossible to teach from a distance.”

Bailey Bednarz talks about distance learning.

Bednarz’s biggest worry is how her students will develop with no emotional connection from their peers. She said it has been difficult to tell her students she can’t hug them when all they need is affection.

“I keep having kids ask, ‘Can we go back to the way it was when COVID’s gone? Can we hug our friends when COVID’s gone?’” Bednarz said. “And I tell them that I want nothing more than that.”

Students and teachers try to keep a positive attitude

It has been hard for Bednarz to stay positive this year. However, she has found her happiness through decorating her new home with her sister.

Finding one piece of happiness in the chaos was also common within Prince and Reynaga.

Prince takes advantage of teaching class outside, and Reynaga finds comfort through journaling about her day and talking with her close friends.

Finding people you can confide in, letting go of stress and scheduling breaks are needed to survive a virtual world, Infurna said.

Gonick said that even with all the challenges remote learning brings, “this is an opportunity to be better than before” because students and teachers are gaining skills they never had.