Let’s Talk: Back to School – COVID Style
By Gail Kablau
Education Support Professional
WEAC ESP-at-Large Board Director
So, school started for us on September 1st, virtually except for staff, with a few exceptions. And now we are preparing for hybrid instruction mid-October. Summer was but a blip on the radar, and suddenly we’re back into it. Except, it’s not the same – it just doesn’t feel right.
The excitement of the first day of school with students greeting each other, staff meeting them in the halls, hearing stories about what they did over the summer was, well – it didn’t happen. Instead, it was replaced with empty halls, and a quiet, unsettling atmosphere.
Normally, I would be starting my day by setting up substitutes in classrooms, and end it with sports related work at the High School. We still have absences, but it’s not the same morning rush, as our staff is teaching virtually. The Fall sports that are taking place are doing so with students coming from home, not from their classrooms. Marching Band activities are cancelled for the Fall season, so my weeknights and weekends have freed up. I should be happy about that, but – it’s not the same, and it doesn’t feel right.
Normal has given way to uncertainty, and support staff stories from around the State are filled with anxiety instead of excitement. As the teachers prepared for virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face instruction, support staff members were facing layoffs, furloughs, or being tasked with doing jobs that were completely different than their usual work. Cleaning and custodial staff were being tasked with deep cleaning and moving furniture to provide appropriate distancing. Food service staff were setting up for multiple scenarios, from full student lunches to meal pick-up programs. Secretaries were frantically trying to keep up with sometimes daily changes in plans for school re-opening, fielding panicked phone calls about technology, school supplies, schedules, meals, child care, you name it.
Education support professionals have more than proven why we are so important in our schools, but many of us are being used as a way to balance a loss in our school budgets, rather than being treated like the “essential” workers we really are. If you haven’t read this article, by Dr. Michael Flanagan, about paraprofessional aides, take a moment to read it. While this only speaks to one part of our educational support family, the main message can certainly be translated to other support positions – schools need us to make the circle of education complete. Decisions about us should not be made without us – we should be a part of the conversation – we should be treated as professionals.
If you are not being included in the conversation, interrupt them. If you are not being treated like a professional, make your position known. If your safety is being compromised, make sure they know what you need in order to be able to do your job safely. Oftentimes, support staff members are afraid to speak out, but this is not the time to be silent. This is the time to speak up and be heard.
Things aren’t the same, and may not feel right, but we do have recourse when things are not being handled properly.
- Ask to meet, either personally or as a small group, with your immediate supervisor. Be honest about what’s happening and how it affects you, and offer suggestions on how things can work better. If that goes nowhere, meet with a District administrator.
- If you are being put in harm’s way, don’t wait until something bad happens – file a grievance. You do have that right.
- Contact your Union officials, either locally or on the Regional or State level, if you need additional advocacy or to arm yourself with the proper information to talk to your administration about your concerns.
- Speak at a School Board meeting, or write a letter to your School Board members – make sure they are getting the truth about how things are going from the people doing the work, not as filtered by District administration.
As we navigate through this pandemic, we may feel isolated because we are in fact isolating ourselves from others, but we are not alone. As a Union member, we have a network of people to help us navigate through these uncharted waters together. Whether our schools are operating in person, virtually, or a mixture of both, we must stay connected – with our colleagues, with our students, and with our Union.
How are you coping with the beginning of this school year? What measures are you taking to make sure you are safe? How are you connecting with others, so you’re not isolated? Let’s Talk!
Contact Gail Kablau at: firstname.lastname@example.org