How the Reality of COVID-19 In the Schools Impacts Even Non-Believers

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

My state's school districts headed back to school a few weeks ago. With hesitation, I returned to my classroom. It didn't really feel as though I had much of a choice. My state doesn't have an active teacher's union as seen in other cities and states. There is no true recourse for those of us who were cautiously optimistic about returning to school for in-person learning - but still more cautious than optimistic.

I couldn't quit to stay home and feel safer. It would mean the end to 50% of my family's income. Like most families, our margins are too thin for me to leave my job. With retirement five years out, future security and responsible planning is the name of the game but no offers for early retirement were issued to my district's personnel.

An opportunity to become a teacher with a district's virtual academy was offered. That offer came with no assurances of being retained to return to the classroom after the "Coronacademy" ends. The decision felt too risky. Our state's virtual academy pays about 25% less than what I currently make so I didn't even bother to apply.

There's Still More Questions Than Answers, Especially as Part of an At-Risk Group

The decision that many of my peers and I made to return is underpinned by our faith in something bigger than us. We are relying on our district to enforce the mandates they have set forth. They need to respect the safety and well-being of staff and students. We need to have disposable PPE replaced within the appropriate guidelines of use. We need to have a way to actually BE apart from each other and not walking down hallways, en masse, when the bell rings for next period. And questions loom for certain things that haven't been settled yet, like if our schools are shut down and students are sent home, should special education teachers be expected to be in the buildings with only their students so IEP-mandated minutes can be met?

For those of us who would love the opportunity to have our classrooms be virtual, it is clear that we are at the mercy of our district. If our districts stay in school, our health is, in my opinion, at risk. Everybody who resides in my home, myself included, fall into noted categories for being at a higher risk of catching Covid.

And…? Exactly. Being our age and in a higher risk category quite simply Does. Not. Matter. We have to do what we have to do, just like many others. So, like many others, I diligently wear my mask. My kids and I wash our hands a lot. They wear their masks as often as their sensory issues will allow. It would be one thing to employ social distancing in the classroom but when you work with students with significant disabilities, social distancing isn't really a consideration. My decision to remain in the classroom is girded by one simple stanchion: I'm doing the best I can. My paraprofessional is doing the best she can. My neighboring special education teachers are doing the best they can.

I know for a fact we are not alone in this boat. There are other families who are challenged by this masked marauder we call Covid-19. All we want to do is keep our kids safe, our staff safe, and our families safe. It doesn't feel like any of these goals are able to be met if we are at school, face-to-face. But it doesn't matter. We ARE at school and we will do our best, pretend as if the masks don't give us "mask-ne" (acne from our masks), demonstrate gratitude that we are well today, that we have soap to use, paper towels to use, and that we can take walks outside (masks on) to enjoy some fresher air and vitamin D. We are pleased to have supplies to sanitize our desks, chairs, and common surfaces frequently.

As the teacher, it is my job to teach perseverance to a group of students who are experts at the same. My special education students continuously move forward no matter what comes their way. They have done it all their lives. They are our standard bearers but they are also the reason for our fervor.

Being As Informed As Possible In Order To Make the Best Decisions Possible

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate there are over six million total cases (identified) of Covid-19 in the United States. In the seven days prior to writing this post, 288,860 cases are new. Total deaths exceed 90,000 known cases.

School districts are in no better place for decision-making than am I. Threats of funding loss strike fear in the hearts of district leadership across the United States. I have seen my administration work tirelessly to do the best they can to make it all work. There are systems in place, plans plotted, and PPE's distributed. What else, really, can be done? What happens when the PPE runs out? Am I supposed to take the kids' cloth masks home to wash and sanitize them? I'm simply not sure but I do it anyway.

The Relevance of Routine and the Resilience Needed to Succeed During These Challenging Times

With respect the CDC's position on the benefits of sending kids back to school, I do wonder, is the health of the adults who work within the schools being considered as they push for a return to the classroom? Recent research has suggested kids aren't getting sick at the same rate as adults. While that is good news, my question is quite simple: if we know that kids are carriers, and we're around other adults in the building during the school day, does it make sense to put us all in the building to mix together? Social distancing practices are not as practical as those in state level offices might believe. I mean, a room is only SO big. If there are 20 kids in a room that is 20' x 20', keeping six feet apart just won't work.

Special education students across the country have spent nearly half a year off their typical schedules. They have lost nearly half a school year of services which were tailored to their specific needs for learning and living. They are back in our buildings, for those of us who've returned to brick and mortar ziggurat to the gods of academia. The kids are happy to be there. Their families are happy to return to a schedule. There are services to resume for occupational, speech, and physical therapies. These are all crucial to the development of our more vulnerable school members. But is there a better, safer way for everyone to get what is needed, what is deserved, and be able to do so with safety in mind? We can't throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water and expect it can only be one way or the other. We need to work together, think outside of the box, and come up with a better way to educate our students who need us so desperately.

Do I wince when a student with special needs refuses to wear a mask but gets close to my face? No, but I want to. They often don't understand their proprioceptive needs are impinging on my need for distance. Should I move? Yes. Am I going to move? I will work hard to make the move with fluidity, as if it were woven into my plan all along. I do not want to upset these precious ones. Is it wrong to feel this way? No. We are living in a time when emotions often feel impossible to explain, incapable of making sense to others, and are negated by those with whom we disagree. Our students are just getting back what this ridiculous virus has stolen from us all: routine. If we are in school at our brick and mortar location, many of us will be there with our special needs students, doing the best we can.

All over this country, teachers are sharing stories and memes about the kids fighting the need to wear a mask. They're using them as slingshots, eye masks, hats, and in one story I was told, even being used-and flushed-as toilet paper. Kids are sneezing into them but not replacing them. They are throwing their cloth masks in the trash (I've found them!) and flat out refusing to wear them.

I get it. I understand it all. This is not normal. It's not typical. It's not how any of us want it to be. But if we're going to work through this together, there needs to be a willingness to do what is necessary for the greater good. This, and the need for an income, can cause me to lose sleep.

The Proof is in the Positive Test Results

My friend and daily walking partner, Ted, is a custodian at a district in my state. Ted and I haven't walked together for several months for a variety of reasons. Last week, I got a message from Ted sharing that the doctor had diagnosed a sinus infection and prescribed some antibiotics, bed rest, and performed a Covid-19 test "just in case." It came back positive.

Ted is one of my friends who did not believe Covid-19 was real. No matter the amount of information people would share with Ted, Ted remained convinced this was simply a matter of politics and skewed reporting. Convinced that it would all go away after the November Presidential election; Ted was unwavering in the belief that it was a hoax.

Barely able to catch a breath, Ted's nasal passages felt like they were on fire. The body aches, excruciating. Ted sleeps about 20 hours a day for now and has openly admitted how very wrong the position of denial is. "I do not wish this on my worst enemy."

During the same week, Ted's co-workers manifested similar symptoms and went to their doctors. Similar protocol was employed. The tests also came back positive.

All three are officially quarantined. All three serve during the daytime hours at their school. One could posit that if the three custodians are potentially all ill, someone in the building is carrying Covid-19. Suffice it to say that it came as no shock when, within a 24 hour period, the rate of positive cases quadrupled just amongst the custodial staff in Ted's district. Ted doesn't know what will create the tipping point for their district to go all virtual. For now, the custodial team is doing what they can to care for one another through remote means as they rest and recover.

I have decided that I know who I am in all of this and that I am destined to a fate beyond the reaches of my control. I realize that on occasion, I must find strength in knowing we are working together to do the best we can. Whether or not we agree with the district leadership doesn't really matter. If you are working virtually, you will do our ultimate best for your students… If you are on-campus, you will do your ultimate best for your students.

If you have the opportunity to make a choice best-suited for you, take your time and choose wisely and well. For those of us whose choice has been made for them, take courage, be strong, and even if you don't communicate with them, know you are part of a community who understands how you feel.

Practice mindfulness. Practice self-care. Be at peace.



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