Where’d Everyone Go?

I’ve been in education for over 20 years. I’ve gone through the various pendulum-swings of testing, standards, bad economy, teacher pay, and now Covid. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other as fast as is happening right now.

I’m in the unique position of being out of the classroom, and I work at the district office, supporting students and teachers with federally funded programs and money. I can’t even begin to express how aware I am that my experience as a “teacher” through the pandemic is NOTHING AT ALL like that of a real teacher who is in the classroom (or online) with kids every day.

But as a “Certificated Employee” I have been under the umbrella of protection and support of my district’s teacher union. I receive all of the emails and updates, and attended many meetings where they explained county guidelines and how they were fighting to keep teachers safe as Covid took over the nation (and world.) For the entire school year of 2020-2021, teachers were regularly updated about what the district and union were doing to support teachers whether that was working from home remotely or coming back into the classroom. The union negotiated multiple “MOUs” (Memorandum of Understanding) to ensure that teachers (and students) were supported throughout online instruction, and protected when they began to come back to campus with students.

And that all lasted until the last day of the school year, which for my district was June 4th. After that, it’s been crickets. Teachers taught summer school with classes half-full of students for 4 hours a day (which was a dramatic increase from the limited on-site interventions students had been attending before June 4th) without the benefit of any union input or protection. No MOU, no meetings, no emails, nothing.

And now our school year has begun with students coming back full-time in full classrooms – we are in California so we do have masking requirements, and the district has kept the cleaning protocols in place from the Spring, but again, no MOU, no meetings specifically about returning with the Delta variant affecting positive cases in the state and county, no meetings with the principals about Covid protocols and what will happen when (not if) students and teachers are positive.

Where’d everyone go? Why aren’t teachers being supported by the organization who is supposed to have our safety and best interests at heart? In our case, coincidentally, our union also happened to negotiate a great contract literally weeks after the end of the school year. It’s an awesome contract, pay raise, bonuses, adjunct-duty changes…but was it a quid-pro-quo type of thing? Did we get this amazing contract negotiated so easily (we literally usually have to go to mediation and pretty much vote to strike before contracts are settled) in exchange for something?

Or is it the union and the relationship with the state and the governor? Are we not “rocking the boat” about coming back to school fully because the union supports CTA who supports the governor? Who happens to be heading up against a recall?

Based on data from schools returning in-person before the Delta variant, all signs pointed to it being safe for teachers and students to be in classes at school, with the masking, cleaning, and social-distancing protocols that were in place at that time. And the data also showed that there would be positive cases that would not necessarily result in transmission. So why wasn’t any of that information provided to teachers at the outset to help them feel more confident about returning? And then, once we realized the variant is causing significant differences in how many children are getting sick, and how it seems to be transmissible even among vaccinated people, why hasn’t there been information provided to teachers about what happens when a student and/or teacher is positive? In my district it is NOT clear what happens, like in a systemic/procedural way, when a student and/or teacher tests positive. Teachers are risking their health and maybe even their lives to help keep schools open which results in parents being able to work and the economy recovering – so why aren’t they being fully informed and supported?

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be opened – I’m just concerned for my colleagues who are there in the classrooms with kids. They are reporting to work every morning and have no idea if today is going to be the day they get a call from the office telling them one of their students tested positive. They don’t know what that will mean for them or their other students. They don’t know if they’ll be sent home, sent to be tested, able to go home to their young children who aren’t able to be vaccinated yet. And we’re expecting these same teachers to be full of energy and making wonderful memories for kids just returning to school for the first time in over a year. Some of our younger students have never even been in a classroom before, and their teacher is supposed to be doing magical things under this cloud of uncertainty.

And I think what is so frustrating about it is the fact that other districts in California have already gone through this and figured it out. Figured out procedures for how to notify teachers and/or parents in a way that doesn’t cause panic, systems for when to test, when to send home, when testing is not needed, when class can continue as normal. So why are so many teachers being left in the dark when it comes to all of this? It makes teachers feel unvalued and disposable, like their well-being isn’t important enough to warrant even a memo or a meeting of reassurance. And I feel conflicted because it isn’t even my fight, since I’m safe and isolated in my little office.

I really want teachers and students to be able to return to school fully – and I wish I had something clever to end with, but honestly, I’m just worried about my friends and their health, both physical and mental. They’re not okay right now, and I wish our district and union would do something about that.

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