By Amanda Menas/ Photo courtesy of Mark Ylen, Mid-Valley Media
Despite the possible risk to their own health, education support professionals (ESPs) in Mayfield, Kentucky, have reported for duty and provided more than 21,000 school meals per week to children 18 and younger.
They know their lives could be on the line–they have seen several colleagues die from the novel coronavirus. In Kentucky alone, two ESPs, both bus drivers, have passed away since school buildings closed. In North Carolina, three others have passed away from the virus.
“I hate that it took a dedicated member’s life to open others’ eyes,” said Matthew Powell, NEA’s 2019 ESP of the Year. “When you have stories about ESPs still fighting for our students, risking their own lives to meet the needs of every child, that really sticks out.”
Since the loss of these ESPs, new safety protocols have been put in place in Kentucky and in other school districts across the country. For Graves County School District, where Powell is a custodian, personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks are required for staff entering school buildings.
Educators know that it will take ongoing advocacy to secure the resources to meet students’ needs and provide PPE and other safety measures up to the standards of the Centers for Disease Control for teachers and support professionals, whose duties vary widely. NEA and its affiliates are working diligently at the national and state level to make those educator voices heard.
As part of the next COVID-19 legislative package, NEA is seeking at least $56 million for personal protective equipment (PPE) for educators, including, and especially education support professionals. These professionals are continuing to prepare and distribute meals; clean, maintain, and secure school buildings; oversee technology needs; and perform other vital work during the pandemic.
Realities and risks facing support professionals
In Elgin, Illinois, access to school buildings is still limited. Original district guidelines said masks were recommended but not required.
“Some [ESPs] are afraid even though they’re supplying PPE and we’ve got a three-page document of what we’re supposed to do, all the rules and regulations,” says Sara Moeller, a paraeducator who works with students from home now via teleconferencing platforms like Google Classroom and Zoom.
Elementary librarians are trying to get back in the school building to ensure their books are in place and close down the area for the summer. Home school liaisons have not had access to their student folders since they left the building in early March. As guidelines are updated, the district is supplying more PPE that will allow some employees to have more access to the school building.
Every educator who reports to the building to work in Moeller’s school will be provided a ziplock bag containing a pair of gloves, a mask to be reused for one week, and a paper bag to place the mask in during that week. Hand sanitizer is also provided. However, Moeller says that in order to return with students to the classroom, it’s important to have access to soap and a sink with running water.
“We work in a non-socially distanced environment,” says Moeller, who is also the union president for District U-46 Educational Assistants. “As a paraeducator you’re usually sitting right next to the students. The teacher can stand at their desk or the front of the room. Paraeducators are usually right by them or gathering them right around us.”
In Powell’s district, ESPs work two days per week, Mondays and Wednesdays, to limit risks of infections. They come in to pack and deliver breakfasts and lunches for the remaining days of the week, plus snacks for the weekends. Bus drivers drive directly to the homes of students within the district, and cafeteria workers drop off the food to allow for low-contact deliveries.
ESPs and teachers worked together to return items students left in classrooms to parents who came by on a scheduled pick-up day.
“Our ESPs came in on their spring break and prepared meals for our students,” said Powell. He says that whether they can continue delivering meals over the summer will depend on federal funding.
“It’s really funding. When we look at this pandemic and the toll that it has on our communities, we need our federal representatives to fight for our schools,” said Powell. During the first week of May he spoke with Congressman James Comer about the impact of the coronavirus on ESPs. “Losing two members, if that’s not enough going in to open their eyes, then they’re in the wrong business.”
ESPs take on new roles
Along with the educators who lost their peers, students are also grieving.
“We’re really reaching out and contacting our students via phone or any kind of virtual way just to show them we’re still here and we still care about them,” said Powell, who worries about students who found schools to be a safe space from their family and home lives. Kentucky has seen a rise in teen suicides in recent years, making it even more important than ever to reach out to students.
Moeller, who typically works in a transitional classroom with 18-21 year-olds, is also seeing that her students’ increased stress levels during the pandemic hinders their ability to focus and learn. One of her union members, sign-language interpreter Kim Okey, says that only being able to pre-record lessons means that her students have less and less access to direct communication now that they are out of school buildings.
“So many parents and so many families don’t know sign language so these kids, they’re not getting the language model, they’re not getting the exposure, they’re not really even being communicated with on a daily basis in a mode that they can really flourish in,” says Okey.
Paraeducators had not been responsible for these check-in phone calls to students and families prior to the pandemic; working with supervisors to pick up new roles can be intimidating.
Okey has taken on the new role of providing pre-recorded translations for deaf parents of hearing students but says that without live contact with them or their children, there are new difficulties.
When returning to the classroom in the future, Okey will face additional challenges. Her communication with students relies in part on facial expressions that will be partially obscured by required face masks. Moeller believes that the union will be able to step in and help advocate for special equipment like clear full-face shields.
Moeller says she has had at least six new members join her union since the beginning of the pandemic. “People are seeing in times like this the importance of having a group of people that can help support each other,” she says.
Email Congress: ESPs and other frontline educators need PPE
The next COVID-19 legislative package should include at least $56 million for personal protective equipment (PPE) for education support professionals and educators in direct contact with students. They should be considered frontline workers whose jobs are essential, and that means having PPE to protect themselves, as well as their families and communities, from infection.
Email your members of Congress and tell them the next COVID-19 bill should include at least $56 million for PPE for educators.