On Wednesday morning, teachers and students nationwide filed into school hallways and classrooms less than 24 hours after news of another mass school shooting poured out of Uvalde, Texas.
Students were required to take final exams, and teachers were expected to grade papers and continue instruction. From the outside, maybe it looked like business as usual.
But a familiar pit in Chanea Bond's stomach told her otherwise.
"I've seen my colleagues cry today," said Bond on Wednesday. As an English and literature teacher in Fort Worth, Texas — nearly 350 miles from where 19 children and 2 adults were shot dead in a classroom less than a day earlier — Bond said she and her colleagues were experiencing emotions ranging from fear and helplessness to stress and nervousness.
"We are balls of stress and balls of nervous energy, waiting for the next thing to happen," she said. "All of our bodies are so exhausted. We're not sleeping. So many of us are just struggling physically."
Yet, Bond and thousands of teachers like her across the nation had to carry on.
"Because if I don't, then everything falls apart."
Teachers traumatized 'over and over and over again'
Nothing is new about the range of emotional, physical and behavioral side effects reported by educators across the nation in the wake of the Uvalde massacre. It is a ripple effect that many teachers have described experiencing after similar mass school shootings: Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Parkland, Sante Fe, Oxford.
That's because those reactions are all symptoms of trauma response, according to Addison Duane, a former elementary school teacher with a Ph.D. in educational psychology and now a professor at Wayne State University. Duane's research and expertise includes trauma and racism in schools.
The spectrum of impacts resulting from firsthand, secondhand and vicarious trauma after school shootings can vary from emotional ones like feeling loss of control, increased anger or increased aggression, to behavioral ones such as withdrawal. Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomachaches, and loss of sleep or appetite.
"And no one is saying, 'Hey, I see that this is really hard. I see this is impossible.' It just feels like we have been asked to shoulder all of the burdens that come with being around young people."
English and literature teacher in Fort Worth, Texas
Bond describes her ears ringing on the walk from her car to the school doors on Wednesday morning.
"Our bodies are living that trauma over and over and over again," she said.
That trauma experienced after a school shooting can be layered on top of pre-existing traumas resulting from systemic racism, especially for those who work in or are members of communities that have been historically marginalized, like Black, Hispanic and low-income students.
Robb Elementary School is a case in point: It is 90% Hispanic and 87% economically disadvantaged, according to school district data.
Layering of trauma is now "a ubiquitous part of the U.S. experience," Duane said.
Against this backdrop, teachers are asked to keep on teaching.
"And no one is saying, 'Hey, I see that this is really hard. I see this is impossible,'" said Bond. "It just feels like we have been asked to shoulder all of the burdens that come with being around young people."
Teachers are also tasked with tending to the social and emotional health of the children they serve at the same time they are reporting higher levels of stress, burnout and fatigue themselves.
"There's going to be cascading impacts on those around us," Duane said. "Think about a classroom setting that is often overcrowded and under-resourced — you name it. That trickle effect is very real and can lead to some pretty devastating impacts for the children in those spaces."
Students experiencing a 'slow-rolling trauma'
When then-seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Kleybold opened fire in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999 — killing 15 and injuring 24 — the incident was recorded as the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Educators now, many of whom were in elementary or middle school at the time, recall it as unfathomable.
Over two decades later, the incident is now considered the fourth-deadliest, surpassed by Sandy Hook in 2012, Parkland in 2018, and Uvalde this week.
In nearly one decade since the last elementary mass shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been over 900 incidents of gunfire reported on school grounds, according to the White House.
And as teachers see themselves represented in national headlines with death tolls, so too do their students.
The result, teachers worry, is a generation of students becoming increasingly desensitized to violence.
"The brutality is in front of their faces," Bond said.
Many of these same students have also recently lost family members, friends and neighbors to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Even if we try to keep kids sort of insulated … it has been a slow-rolling trauma for several years," said Gerard Lawson, a licensed professional counselor who helped coordinate the response to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. Lawson, who specializes in crisis management, is also a professor at Virginia Tech's School of Education and former president of the American Counseling Association.
School safety, disaster response and trauma specialists recommend teachers and education leaders build or strengthen relationships with students, facilitate peer connections and try to reassure students they are safe — things that are all the more difficult considering COVID-19's toll on school connectedness and students' social and emotional well-being.
Many have repeatedly called upon school principals, superintendents, counselors and psychologists to exercise their leadership skills to create a positive school climate.
"But the reality is, this is just one more example that there's no community that's immune from this," said Lawson.
Students in low-income communities, and those in some Black and Hispanic communities, however, are more likely to face barriers in accessing mental health care because of stigmas, lack of or inadequate health insurance, and shortages of resources like psychologists.
In a field where “trauma-informed practices” has become a buzz phrase for these historically marginalized communities, teachers describe a plethora of trauma and inadequacies. Large classroom sizes, high psychologist-student ratios and a lack of professional development are just some concerns.
"The idea of someone coming in and hurting me and my students doesn't scare me nearly as much as someone who's already here, not being able to process their own trauma and acting out," Bond said. "The type of citizens that we're sending into the world, those people are more likely to be dangerous, because they do not know any better."
'I don't know how to be there for them'
Teachers nationwide have taken to social media to recount a lack of resources and empathy from many school leaders as adding to their stress after Uvalde.
That's not out of the ordinary for these situations, however — it's a sentiment that dates back at least a decade to Sandy Hook.
"I will never forget the day my 8th-graders got their phones out at the end of the day and read the news about Sandy Hook in real time," said one person who was a middle school teacher in Massachusetts then. "I didn't know how to be there for them," said the former teacher, who asked not to be named because she is not authorized to speak publicly in her current job in curriculum publishing. She said she is regularly in school buildings in this role.
Now, with states like Florida prohibiting social-emotional learning as a part of "critical race theory," teachers may find it more difficult to have uncensored conversations with their students.
"They [students] need to be at school for their mental health, but they're not safe at school because they could be riddled with bullets. They can't wear masks, but people in their community are getting sick," Bond said, referring to states that have banned requiring masks in schools. "It feels like we're always at the center of those moral and political debates with no resources to help us navigate through them."
But in 2012, the former Massachusetts teacher recalls reviewing safety protocols with her students in case a live shooter entered her building. She said she included a secret resource of her own: a hammer in her desk to break the window and shuffle out students in case they were in lockdown. She recalls many of her co-workers also keeping hammers in their desks for this reason.
"There were two plans: the official school plan of 'duck-and-hide in the corner,' versus 'If that were to happen here, here's where the hammer is,’" she said.
When she eventually left the teaching profession in 2016 after seven years in the classroom, she describes her parents' initial reaction as relief.
It's possible that after the Uvalde shooting, other teachers — who are already reporting high levels of burnout and stress in the wake of the pandemic — throw in the towel, too.
"Teacher retention is currently an issue and this [shooting] will likely exacerbate it," said Julia Martin, former education policy advisor for the Senate Committee on Education and Labor. Martin currently serves as a legislative director for law firm Brustein & Manasevit.
According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association released in March, about a third of teachers reported receiving least one incident of verbal harassment or violent threats from students during the pandemic, and almost 50% said they planned or wanted to quit or transfer jobs.
"Certainly the specter of a school shooting — and in this case, two teachers were killed — is a deterrent for many who would otherwise become teachers, and could be the last straw for those already considering leaving the profession," Martin said.
Bond, who has been teaching for seven years, says she plans to eventually leave teaching entirely.
"I would love to just teach, but that's a luxury that we don't have right now," she said. "I don't know that I can be alive if I continue to try to do this for another 10 years."