Well It’s My Prep Period but I Can’t Concentrate To Get Any Work Done

Op-Ed submitted anonymously by UFT member

Well it’s my prep period but I can’t concentrate to get any work done. Today we had a chapter meeting that was scheduled for thirty minutes, but because the Zoom link didn’t work it was only about twenty. The chapter leader spent a while discussing the policy for how much we get paid for doing extra work if a student is quarantined. If we do the work (like a Zoom office hours) during the school day we get a coverage rate of only about $20, but if we do it after school it’s the per session rate of $50. It’s such an old school way of thinking — that the union is just there to negotiate pay rates.

What’s really my concern? A dozen of my students have tested positive. I can’t stop thinking about them and their families. Who’s buying their groceries? Who’s paying rent? Are they getting paid sick leave? Are their coughs waking everybody up at night? Has everybody even been able to get a test, or were they waiting for hours in the cold and gave up? Are they telling close contacts they should test?

And how many of those students got sick from school? At least a couple, I’m pretty sure. A student came in on Monday, was sent home early with a test that came back positive. Today (two days later) two more students in that same class have positive tests, which seems to be evidence of in school spread. Maybe. Of course I’m not an epidemiologist or a contact tracer. Neither is my Principal or Assistant Principal. And I don’t think there are even rules for what happens if there is an in school spread. 

So I sit, and I wait. I get the WhatsApp messages from students, I mark it all down in our internal case tracker, and I watch as classes get smaller day to day. Students say they are gloomy, they are scared, they are depressed. How do I teach a class of 4 students? I can do my lesson and pretend like everything is normal. How will the quarantined students make up this work? Should they even have to? How can we be sure our system isn’t punishing them, when it’s the system that has failed them so badly? We can just sit and talk, but they’re sick of that too. We all feel helpless.

So many people have seen this coming and proposed feasible interventions (have you seen the movie Don’t Look Up? I’m living it). We should have tested every staff and student before they entered the building. We should continue to test everyone weekly. The “gold standard” doubling of testing is such smoke and mirrors — they are now testing a number of vaxxed or unvaxxed students EQUAL TO 20% OF OUR UNVAXXED STUDENTS! We did a good job getting our kids vaxxed, the rate for seniors is over 90%, and as a result, we get less than a handful of them tested a week. Nobody thinks the testing is designed to actually find cases. Saliva pool testing, I’ve heard, is one of the cheapest and most effective ways schools around the country are testing students frequently, but there hasn’t been a peep about it in NYC. We test so we can tell people that we’re testing. But those of us in the building see what’s happening. We know we’re really on our own.

What else should we do? Give out good masks to everyone, all the time. Teachers and staff now get one KN95 a week, students can get surgical masks at entry but those aren’t as effective. At least my school has windows that open (yes I’m typing this with gloves on because the windows are open and the thermostat says 61’ in here. But a student in this room walked out of school earlier because she got a text from her mom saying that she was positive, so I want to get all the air out I can). We do have air purifiers — four in this classroom because my principal bought some last year before the DOE got their act together. Thank goodness for my administration who works so hard and bases decisions on science. If I didn’t trust my bosses, I don’t know that I could be risking my health like this. 

And fortunately we have only about 10% of our staff out sick. For now. I’m hearing that other schools are down 50%, that students are being warehoused in the auditorium because they’re short staffed. We’re trying to do right by our kids here, to provide a safe and stable place for them to be. Nobody thinks we should go back to remote classes permanently. 

But how is this better than a few days at home to get things organized? Why are some cities able to get testing done and others just say “we got this”? Why do we have to wait to see it get really bad before we believe that it can get really bad? If I could keep my 6 year old son home from school I would. If I could crawl under the covers for the next few weeks I would. When will the voices of people in the schools be louder than the ones with the microphones? Teachers and students are not ok.

Update: A representative from the UFT district came to our school. I overheard conversations about how everybody will get infected, it’s just mild, and we’re transitioning away from identifying every single case. I cannot accept someone talking about my students this way. When R is sick, D texts me how worried she is about her mother, A says he has to take care of his family because his father can’t work, I feel it. The eyes of my students, all I see when they’re masked, beg for protection, understanding, support. A union of professionals cannot be willing to speak about students (much less their professional members) in these terms. I feel abandoned. I feel like nobody cares about my health or the health of my family (who may be immunocompromised, pregnant, elderly, etc). Isn’t it literally the job of a union to protect the safety of its members? Well, time to go home now. Tomorrow is another day, and I have absolutely no idea what it will bring.