Education News

Support professionals press for protective gear as they continue working for students

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.

21 responses to “Support professionals press for protective gear as they continue working for students

  1. I have written a couple of letters to our school board expressing my concerns. First thanking them for their conservative approach in the Spring, and making suggestions regarding outdoor sensory paths and stations for some of our younger students. My last e mail was regarding our HVAC system with a link from PBS examining the nitty gritty of some of our outdated school systems. They do not respond, or even acknowledge that they received the email which completely adds insult to injury. We had a very sick wing of school prior to the COVID shutdown in the Spring. I was one of the sick ones (diagnosed with bronchitis, RSV and had an emergency appendectomy). They were not testing for COVID at that time. I was very sick, as were a number of my colleagues and students. The office I worked from most of the time was an interior space, with no windows, but a small vent blowing in . I am genuinely concerned that we are overlooking the spread through HVAC systems. I am told they have been cleaned and have new filters, but I don’t think those sharing that news are trained enough to even know if they are disseminating correct information. We are NOT being given N95 masks, but have access to the 1200 disposable masks that have been ordered for the entire school (when they run out, they run out). We will go back hybrid and para educators will follow the child in my grade level….meaning I will have direct contact with every teacher and IA teacher, and every child in that grade level. We will not be receiving plexi shields, “they are too expensive”. (I bought my own to tote along). I am discouraged. I have signed my contract because I was truly thinking we would go back remotely. When asked about cleaning supplies the answer is, we are working on it. However I will be the one responsible for doing the periodic cleaning. Since we are a public school I truly wish there was more direction at state level. Where is the task force that should be checking in on schools to see if they meet the necessary criteria to open safely for all?

  2. As a school library media specialist, I am writing on behalf of others in my position, including our library aides. Just like all school employees, we are continually in close proximity to students as we teach, help students with book selection, help students individually or in small group instruction at our library tables, converse with our students, while handling library material as we check them out to students, check returned materials in, and shelve them. It is my hope that we can be fully protected from the germs and viruses that spread by our young patrons and our handling of the library materials. Funding is needed for UV light, gloves, masks, alcohol sanitizer, wipes, and disinfectant cleaners and air sprays.

  3. Budget consideration to protect aLL school employees because PPE will be needed when schools reopen. Salaries are basic the that we are not corporate America employees. Please make plans for the future, unified efforts as one nation counts during this time!

  4. Non-surgerical masks protect OTHER people, not the wearer. Schools need to install ultra-violet germicidal lamps or other means of keeping staff safe. It should not be up to the staff to handle their own personal protection. As a paraprofessional in a wealthy school district, I will be upset if I just get handed a reusable cloth mask, in the Fall.

  5. My name is Anne-Marie Hodges and I am a Kindergarten PE Teacher. I believe that we will need to use a lot of distances in schools now inside and outside the classroom. Each desk should have a plastic window as a protective divider.

    Personally, I do not know if I will feel comfortable giving PE directions wearing a mask all day long. After the first week of class, I will know better what to do.

  6. ESP. especially in Special Education/CRI, need gloves more than once a week! Can you imagine cleaning up a child from an accident and wearing the same gloves? How about cleaning up a child and then feeding another? We may need several pairs of gloves a day.

    N95 face masks will need to be replaced, at least, daily! Wearing the same mask for several days, after children sneeze, cough and maybe even spit in your face, will only continue to contaminate the environment.

    PLEASE provide all staff with the proper PPE equipment so that we can continue to perform our jobs in a safer environment.

  7. I am a firm believer that educators and para professionals are in dire need of PPE that is clear and effective at protecting them from the dangers of vivid 19. Being a teacher who has a compromised immune system and also being severely claustrophobic it is impossible for me to wear a tight mask across my face and teach all day. Students can’t see my lips and I have taught several students who have hearing issues that rely on seeing my lips. In order for me to be an effective teacher I need congress to put the funds in place to insure that we are safe and able to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. That has to include students to be able to view our faces, and read our lips.

    As a mother of a two children who have even weaker immune systems than my own. It makes me terrified to thing that I could catch something and I wouldn’t be around to raise my family or see my three grandsons grow up. That fear is intensified when I consider the possibility of bringing something home, that could take the lives of my personal children.

  8. I work in an inner city school, our students do not have a lot, and they are not hand washer. They don’t always wash their hands after using the bathroom. We do not have hot water in our bathrooms, or classrooms. We try to teach them, and train them to do the right thing, to keep their hands out of their pants, mouth, to use a tissue. We do care about these kids, so much so as we have been known to take our money and buy them coats, shoes, Christmas gifts, etc.
    We have to collect work from the kids, that you don’t want to touch, because it is wet, the fingers in the month.

  9. ALL school employees will need PPE! When schools reopen. Please make plans for the future!

  10. Special education students often have disabilities that keep them from understanding the need for social distancing measures and we often need to sit right next to a child, even placing our hands on their hands, to help them understand concepts. Our students are often trying to learn basic hygiene routines, and don’t understand the spread of germs. Some may be not be able to wear masks due to sensory issues and will likely pull them off. Some students put their hands in their hands and mouths, fingers in noses, don’t cough into the sleeves or a tissue. I have seen how quickly a cold or flu can spread through a classroom, even with frequent sanitizing of surfaces. Returning to teaching students in a school setting will require PPE to keep students and staff members as safe as possible.

  11. Working as support staff puts many of us in closer contact with our students. Several have nervous habits such as putting their fingers in their mouths. Several also crave/need human ‘touch’; and this in itself could put everyone in danger. It will be difficult for them to understand, as well as heart-breaking to try to explain to a child, “Sorry I can’t give you that buddy hug we always did before.” Cognitive skills of many of the students we work with will make it extremely challenging for all of us; some will not be able to process the reasoning behind why we can’t hug, walk near each other in the hall, eat lunch as a group, etc… A few of our students need assistance with just maneuvering stairs or being able to move from one room to the next-how will these new rules impact them? Impact us as support staff? We need to be protected for the safety of all of us. We will need extra protective gear, but it also needs to not be intimidating and it needs to take into account the special needs of many of our students.

  12. I absolutely support this statement! Kid Funk is REAL… most people don’t have the guts to do this job. This job demands recognition and support!

  13. I wonder if they could provide cleanable, re-usable masks and gloves… with lots of hand sanitizer. It is not sustainable to have a new pair of everything every day for everyone of the school systems/districts…. The demand is already high at other facilities… procuring these will be the issue. Do they make re-usable, cleanable? ETC?

  14. Teachers should be provided with plenty of Lysol (or other antibacterial/antiviral wipes for their classrooms/workstations for the benefit of students. I don’t believe the taxpayers should be providing masks or other PPE to schools. We haven’t received them for the flu season and this virus is no worse. Teachers who want these items should purchase them for themselves. Not all union membership is for big government spending, including myself. If you want to give school money, earmark if for teacher wages. We are poor!

  15. Speaking on behalf of the Bus Drivers of La., we are in need of an raise as I (we) speak. We’ve been at it for years I would appreciate it if you’ll respond back . In this pandemic the school workers like custodians, lunchroom workers and maintenance workers as well as the bus drivers we need help. I feel we need to get unemployment if we’re going to be off until 2021, we just can’t go on struggling like we are in this crisis. It hurts me to my heart that you all as Senators, Representatives and whatever your position you whole in the White House for La. shame on you that you want fight for us, please stop worrying about your own pockets and focus on your constituents back home. I would appreciate if you could respond back to me

  16. Classified staff need to be protected from the vivid 19. Issue more than 1 PPE per week. Our ESE / ASD students sneeze and cough with open mouths in our faces. Their hands are in unspeakable places on their bodies constantly throughout the day.

    1. I have worked for over 40ty years with the ESE population, it was difficult to stay bacteria free before the Covid 19. I have worked with all ages from 2 year to 21 year old. Today I work with elementary students..
      With gloves , hand sanitizer, constant cleansing , with wiping our selves ,wiping surfaces, wiping the student, spraying, changing gloves, repeating this same what we do on a daily, student to student , moment to moment biases..
      Did I mention the wiping of noses, drooling saliva, and changing of soiled diapers and clothing. With all the precautions we do take now at the expense of our health we still become sick and loose out do to flue, colds and excessive exposure to all bacteria and viral air droplets.
      I have a special office you would find me in on a daily basis.. The staff knew where I would be if not in the classroom , at special, or late for my own break or lunch.
      Our students come first with everyone who takes our job. Do we do it for the money and exposure to bacteria.. No we enjoy making a difference, we see what is needed and pursue it. We put our selves on the front lines on a moment to moment basis. Esp’s and all educational staff do this consistently.
      Our salary does not cover the protection gear , sanitizer, mask , gloves, face shields that we are now going to need to wear.. As I said before .. We were exposed to it prior to March 13th, 2020. I became sick January 18th, stayed home till the 28th of January.. To find out later it may have been more than just the typical flue, I was told I had influenza A…. I was extremely sick and latter heard the same symptoms to be part of the Covid symptoms..Going back to work I wore a mask for the next 4 days, sanitized, wore gloves and all the above. Being mindful I had never been the run down and fatigued in over 40 years when I had gotten sick with the Hong Kong flue while working with the same population.

      I am 68 today I was ready to retire in August until the Pandemic, I have decided to go back to work to support the the students to adjust to our new normal, as well as the staff.

      I believe more than the general has to occur when going back to working with our population.. I personally have purchased 50 new masks along with 4 splash fields… I will be prepared to reenter the work field when schools open.

      Did I mention my office was and is the class restroom, My name is above the door..
      I stand firm that we will need the extra training , protection to reenter our positions. or we will be lost with out the support of staff that may not return , either through death or moving onto different jobs.

      Thank you for putting our safety first…

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