As pandemic overwhelms and strains school system, Utah teachers ask for help

(ABC4) – As the number of COVID cases continues to hit record highs day after day, the state and perhaps the nation as a whole finds itself in a precarious situation.

Arguably, one of the most important elements that hold together the structure of a somewhat normal life is the education system, especially the educators themselves.

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

“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 must stay at home. Then the places where parents work are short-term workers,” she tells ABC4.com. “And we’ve already seen a lot 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 haven’t enough people to operate, so it’s really community-wide.

As the schools advance, so can the economy as the Omicron variant continues to make its way across the world. Currently, many schools and school districts are implementing a “test to stay” program to keep school buildings, and the students in them, open as safely as possible. Numerous tests have reflected positive results on hundreds of high school students at a single school at a time.

Knowing that the entire fabric of daily life is already strained, and with a shortage of testing, the top state leadership is bracing for possible adjustments. A letter sent to school, public and charter boards on Thursday says leaders are moving toward holding fewer testing programs to stay.

Testing is needed elsewhere, the letter says.

“Given the unique characteristics of the Omicron variant, the availability of vaccines and the development of guidelines from health authorities, it is necessary to step back from the testing programs to stay, allowing the Ministry of Health to Utah to devote its testing resources to collective care. facilities, long-term care facilities and community testing sites,” reads, above the signatures of Governor Spencer Cox, leaders of the state legislature, and Sydnee Dickson, superintendent of instruction. public.

At the same time, the legislature is being proposed to act on an exception to the Utah code that mandates in-person learning for four days a week. An exception, based on reaching a threshold of positive cases and determining that in-person learning is too risky by the school board, will be available in the weeks beginning Jan. 17 and Jan. 24.

In response, the UEA declared its support for this “close to stay open” policy, but added that it needed a little more help and empathy from leaders and the community. as a whole towards teachers.

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

The pandemic has been difficult for many, and Boehme says teachers are no exception to the difficulties of a tense and challenging workplace.

“Teachers are givers by nature,” she says, a former sixth grade teacher herself. “Most of them entered the profession because they love children and because they love teaching. And when they can’t do that, because of COVID or when it gets so hard, they get so tired. We have seen so many leave the profession.

If a teacher falls ill, a replacement should be provided. Unfortunately, in many districts there is a severe shortage of available subs. Often some teachers will be asked to combine their class with another, putting one adult in charge of 50-60 children at a time. Many teachers have been asked to put their prep time or meal periods on hold to compensate for the workload.

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

According to UEA, teachers need leadership support in a few key areas. On the one hand, Boehme is a proponent of using relief funds to compensate teachers instead of using sick days they may have accrued, before the pandemic. Another measure would be the implementation of mask mandates.

“Utah has been very successful in opening schools in the 2020-21 year. We were one of the few states that had schools open virtually year-round, but we had a mask mandate, and I think that’s 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 will be up to government leaders to listen to school boards and the teachers’ union before voting or implementing any policy changes. As for parents, there are a few things they can do to help their children’s teachers beyond just being kind and empathetic, Boehme says.

Things like helping an elementary school group with a math concept, reading with students, or even volunteering to grade homework go a long way. They’re needed, and it might help outsiders better understand what’s going on in Utah classrooms right now.

“There are lots of ways for parents to volunteer and help see what’s really going on in schools,” says Boehme. “I think if they saw what was going on, they would better appreciate what our educators do on a daily basis.”

Jeremy S. McLain