As pandemic overworks and exhausts school system, Utah teachers ask for help

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FILE – In this Aug. 17, 2020, file photo, Cimmie Hunter, left, and Cadence Ludlow, both 6th graders, arrive at Liberty Elementary School during the first day of class in Murray, Utah. For countless families across the country, the school year is opening in disarray and confusion, with coronavirus outbreaks triggering sudden closings, mass quarantines and deep anxiety among parents. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(ABC4) – As COVID case counts continue to break records day after day, the state and perhaps the nation at large, is in a precarious spot.

It could be said that one of the biggest pieces holding the entire structure of a somewhat normal life together is the education system, particularly, the educators themselves.

If teachers can’t work due to illness, and if too many school districts are forced to turn to online learning, the negative effects could ripple throughout the state, says Jennifer Boehme, the Utah Education Association’s (UEA) Executive Director.

“When that happens, you have these kids, many of whom don’t have parents at home during the day because they’re working, who have to stay home. Then the parents have to stay home. Then the places where the parents work are short workers,” she explains to ABC4.com. “And we’ve already seen lots of places like local restaurants that have closed because they don’t have enough people to work, and airlines that have canceled hundreds of flights because they don’t have enough people to function, so it really is community-wide.”

As the schools go, the economy may go with it as the Omicron variant continues to make its way through the globe. Currently, many schools and school districts are implementing a “test-to-stay” program to keep school buildings and students in them, open as safely as possible. Many of the tests have reflected positive results on hundreds of high school students at a single school at a time.

Knowing the entire fabric of daily life is already strained, and with a shortage of tests, the top of the state’s leadership is preparing for any possible adjustments. A letter sent to school boards, both public and charter, on Thursday, reads that leaders are moving towards holding fewer test-to-stay programs.

The tests are needed elsewhere, the letter states.

“Given the unique characteristics of the Omicron variant, the availability of vaccinations and developing guidance from health authorities, it is necessary to step back from test-to-stay programs, allowing the Utah Department of Health to devote its testing resources to congregate-care facilities, long term care facilities, and community testing sites,” it reads, above signatures by Gov. Spencer Cox, the leaders of the State Legislature, and Sydnee Dickson, the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Concurrently, the legislature is proposed to act on an exception to Utah Code that mandates in-person learning for four days per week. An exception, based on reaching a positive case threshold and a determination that in-person learning is too risky by the school board, will be available in the weeks beginning on Jan. 17 and Jan. 24.

In response, UEA stated its support for this ‘close to stay open’ policy but added it needs a bit more help and empathy from leaders and the community as a whole, towards teachers.

“The “close-to-stay-open” strategy only works, however, if the entire community is committed to reducing the number of COVID cases by following the recommendations of our health experts. The workload and responsibilities currently heaped on educators are staggering. These dedicated individuals struggle to meet the learning needs of students as well as attend to personal and family health situations,” the UEA’s statement reads.

The pandemic has been difficult on many, and Boehme says teachers are no exception to the hardship of a strained and challenging workplace.

“Teachers are givers by nature,” she, a former sixth-grade teacher herself, states. “Most of them went into the profession because they love kids and because they love to teach. And when they can’t do that, because of COVID or when it becomes just so difficult, they get so tired. We’ve seen so many leave the profession.”

Should a teacher get sick, it’ll be necessary to arrange for a substitute. Unfortunately, in many districts, there is a severe shortage of subs available. Oftentimes, some teachers will be asked to combine their class with another, putting one adult in charge of as many as 50-60 children at once. Many teachers have been asked to put their preparation time or lunch periods on hold to make up for the workload.

Things get even trickier when bus drivers, lunch workers, playground supervisors, and custodians get infected and are unable to work. Without the adults in place, the schools cannot operate, Boehme explains.

According to the UEA, teachers need help from leaders in a couple of key areas. For one, Boehme is a proponent of relief funds being used to compensate teachers in place of using the sick days they may have banked, pre-pandemic. Another measure would be the implementation of mask mandates.

“Utah did really well with having schools open in the 2020-21 year. We were one of the few states that had schools open basically the entire year, but we had a mask mandate, and that I think that is what saved us,” Boehme illustrates. “And I think right now, we’re seeing the impact of not having a mask requirement in our public schools  in combination with a more transmissible variant.”

It’ll be up to the government leaders to listen to the school boards and the teachers union before voting on or implementing any policy changes. As far as parents are concerned, there are a few small things they can do to help their children’s teachers, in addition to simply being kind and empathetic, Boehme says.

Things like helping an elementary school group out with a math concept, reading with students, or even volunteering to grade papers go a long way. They’re needed and doing so could help outsiders better inside what’s happening in Utah classrooms right now.

“There are lots of different ways that parents can volunteer and help to see what’s actually happening in the schools,” Boehme says. “I think if they saw what was happening, they would gain a greater appreciation for what our educators are doing on a daily basis.”

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