Exhausting. Challenging. Unsustainable.
These are the most common words that educators are using to describe what the beginning of the 2021-22 school year has been like for them. Staff shortages that began long before the pandemic have now reached crisis levels. New and ever-changing safety protocols have compounded the problem by adding to the already-increasing workloads of all educators. Students who haven’t been in classrooms full-time for nearly two years are having to learn how to interact with their peers and be part of a structured school environment again, on top of trying to catch up academically. And the threat of COVID-19 still looms over the scene, creating an extra layer of anxiety for all.
And still, OEA members and educators across the nation are showing up every single day, doing their best to provide quality public education for all students. From the full-time release local presidents who are doing their part to fill the gaps in substitute coverage, to the bus drivers who are taking on extra routes to ensure students have a safe ride to and from school, to the school nurses who are giving their all to keep students and staff healthy and safe — we've collected just a few of these eye-opening Back to School stories from OEA members across our state.
Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg & Maraline Ellis
We started off this school year with dozens and dozens of unfilled classroom positions. Most of our available and willing substitute teachers became long-term subs, and we’re still trying to wade through the TSPC backlog to get new hires into their classrooms. We’re also using every available licensed staff person, like literacy specialists, behavior specialists, counselors, and instructional mentors to supplement our daily substitute needs. Subs that are not in a long-term position are very scarce. We have had a shortage for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated it considerably. If one of our staff gets sick or has to quarantine or use any kind of leave, we’re scrambling to find someone to take that class. At the elementary level, the worst-case scenario is that classes have to be divided up into several other classrooms for the day, which creates a lot of disruption internally.
To help remedy the crisis, we’ve both started substitute teaching one day a week as part of our full-time release positions as SKEA President and Vice President. Everybody is just doing the best that they can, but it's not an ideal situation in so many ways. We’re exhausted. We’re afraid that this unsustainable workload is going to make us sick and add to the substitute shortage.
One of the big issues is that our Governor and ODE and other state leaders are forging ahead this year as though we've never been in a pandemic. Instruction time, evaluations, those requirements have all been reinstated. We really appreciate the work that OEA leadership is doing to uplift our voices at the state level, because it seems like they’re expecting schools to run business as usual and we’re still actively dealing with this pandemic. We can’t have teachers in the front of students for 100 percent of their day and still expect them to be able to provide care and connection. Not only that, but we’ve been on a runway to a teacher shortage for the past several years. We’ve been patching the holes for a long time, but COVID came and ripped the band aid off. We know this is not a unique situation to Salem-Keizer, but when our members are calling us on the brink of quitting, it really hits home for us.
Our motivation is first, we want to stand in solidarity because we know teachers are giving up their prep time, and that’s a crucial part of a teacher’s day. We have non-classroom license staff that filling in as subsitutes on top of their jobs and we’re trying our hardest to scale that back as much as possible. We want to try to provide relief. In terms of bargaining, we pushed the district to give the statewide in-service day back to our teachers. Having just one extra day to take care of ourselves was a huge win for us.
And we're still pushing. We believe that meetings and PD needs to go on the back burner for now, because it's just not even manageable at this point. Another big win for us is that our district has agreed to an MOU that gives our teachers control over education plans for students who are in quarantine. In my twenty-plus years of teaching, I have never been guaranteed the ability to use my own professional judgement to decide what’s best for my students, and it’s something that needs to be happening more.
A lot of times, our communities and our leaders think that we should just do what’s best for the kids and everything else will fall into place, but most of the time, that’s unrealistic. It’s not best for our kids for their teachers to be stretched so thin that they are ready to leave the profession. We have to support educators if we want our students to be successful.
Reynolds is a huge school. When one student tested positive a few weeks ago, there was such a large number of students and families that we had to notify that the school had to close in order to accommodate that effort. What people don’t realize is that we have to first contact trace, which can be extremely difficult at the high school level when kids are moving between different classrooms and there might not be assigned seating, and then we have to make phone calls to each and every household as well as send out letters to notify families that their child was exposed. We have a large percentage of families who need interpreters, so we have to coordinate that so we can communicate with them. So, it might seem silly to close down a school that only has four positive cases, but the workload that those four cases create is huge.
Because of all of the tracking that we as school nurses have to do for COVID, I can't do my regular job. I’m all-consumed with following up on reported cases and trying to notify students and families. I’m not able to do the follow-up with students and families about documentation I need to provide medical care. I don’t have time to send teacher notifications. I sometimes feel like my license is vulnerable because I don’t have the bandwidth to meet every obligation that I have to my students as a school nurse. It’s not a good feeling. I know I’m responsible for these kids, but COVID has become a full-time job. I don't even know how many hours a week I work anymore. I work weekends and nights because I am constantly interrupted at work, and I can’t keep doing this. It’s exhausting.
Even if the district wanted to hire more nurses to make my job easier, there are no nurses to hire. Healthcare workers are in such short supply as it is. MESDEA has pushed our employer into finally reopening our contract at the point because we nurses have been worked to the point that we’re getting sick, and we can’t hang in there much longer. And this comes at a time when we really don’t have the energy or time to enter into bargaining. I don’t honestly know what their plan was, but the current situation for us is unsustainable.
One thing that I think would be so helpful is if districts would hire more full-time contact tracers. That kind of work does not require a medical license, and I feel that by asking school nurses to do it, we’re wasting extremely limited and valuable resources. There are already so few of us; our schools can’t afford to lose any more to burnout.
Our school district went back to full-time, in-person classes last January, so we had a good idea about what to expect coming into this school year. We’ve had to make modifications as new guidance has been released, but we had an advantage in that we already had routines in place for lunches, drop-offs and pick-ups, and social distancing. One of the biggest challenges for us this year has been the statewide COVID vaccine mandate. Though most of our district is fully vaccinated, there are still some of our members who are hesitant. And we’re already so short-staffed. In a district this small, losing even a few of our numbers would seriously impact our ability to run our schools, so the idea that, come October 19, we were going to have even fewer staff was a scary thought. As a local president, it’s my job to make sure that I’m representing all of my members, not just the ones that have the same values and beliefs that I do. My members are good educators, even if they did not get the vaccine. As a leader, it’s my responsibility to show everyone the same respect and compassion as they make those choices.
Eagle Point is fortunate that our association and our district and school board have a great working relationship. We don't agree on a lot of things, but we’ve always been able to work together to make sure our students and staff are supported to the best of our abilities. I was able to send out surveys to my members to get a feel for what they were comfortable with and did my best to make sure that they knew that our district did not want to lose them as employees. Once they felt valued and supported, there was room for conversation about how to keep everyone safe.
Our HR department scheduled one-on-one meetings with all unvaccinated staff, and I was there to support them and help figure out what reasonable safety measures might look like in their particular jobs. We also addressed the issue of ensuring that our unvaccinated members weren’t singled out in obvious ways by giving everyone several different options for the types of face protection they could wear. This collaborative approach that we took made all the difference and it means that we won’t be losing any of our staff members, yet we were still able to come up with solutions that will keep our staff and schools safe. At the end of the day, that’s the goal and I’m proud of my entire district for coming together to make that happen.
As much as I’m excited to be back in school and working in groups again, it hasn’t been without some serious challenges. In short, the beginning of this school year has been exhausting, for everyone. It’s starting to feel like we’re getting back in the swing of things; I’m having fewer kids complain about being tired after a full day of school, but it’s been so difficult to get back into this routine. My sixth graders haven’t been through a normal school year since third grade, so we can’t necessarily just dive right back into teaching content. We’re spending a lot of time resetting expectations for what classroom behavior looks like and it can be really stressful and disruptive, both for students and educators. Enforcing all of the requirements for safety means that we are constantly having to remind students to put their mask on, to put it on correctly, to stay in their assigned seats, and that takes up a lot of our time.
I’ve also found that I've had to slow things down considerably compared to years before. I teach beginning band and beginning orchestra and I find that it takes me about twice as long to go over concepts and review things that I wouldn’t normally have had to review before. And I know it’s not their fault, but it’s still upsetting to see. Most of them haven’t been on a regular sleep schedule for almost two years, so they’re tired much more easily. They’re distracted much more easily.
We were experiencing a high level of educator turnover even before COVID, but it certainly hasn’t helped. Our teachers are burnt out. Educators are retiring before they normally would have planned to because this job has become so difficult. We already have a hard enough time recruiting people to come to work in our district because the wages are low and there is a lack of affordable housing in our area. People can’t afford to live and work here. There are lots of open jobs right now, but we can’t fill them.
It’s hard to address those underlying issues because we’re so busy dealing with the fallout of COVID right now, but these things existed before the pandemic and they’ve only gotten worse. My hope is that we can get through this and be able to do more beneficial things for our members, like creating salary incentives and affordable housing opportunities, things that will benefit the whole district and community.
During the summer, our transportation staff had a lot of hope that this school year was going to be a bit smoother compared to last year. We were all prepared to come back to certain conditions, like added safety precautions and doing what we could to stop the spread of COVID, but the vaccine mandate threw a wrench into some folks’ plans. It forced a lot of people to make some difficult decisions that they perhaps weren’t entirely ready to make, and the result is that we have already lost six bus drivers, and we expect to lose at least three more come October 18. We started the year off with 18, and we’re down to half that number now. Most of the people in our transportation department have been with the district for ten years or better.
With this loss, we’ve had to completely switch up our game plan to make sure that our students still have a safe way to get to school. We’ve already planned to eliminate two bus routes and absorb those kids into three different routes. Even though those buses might not be at full capacity, that’s going to put a lot more demand on the driver. School bus drivers are representing our district in the community, and we have a responsibility to stay focused on the road. When you increase the number of kids on the bus, that becomes a lot harder. Most of the kids on my bus have known me for years, and I’ve had time to build a rapport with them, which makes it easier to manage them and keep them safe while I’m driving. When 10 or 15 more kids who aren’t familiar with me get added to my route, it changes the whole dynamic of what’s happening behind me in the driver’s seat.
Consolidating routes is a short-term solution. Our district is already proposing a renegotiation of our contract so they can make an adjustment in driver wages and benefits, because we have to replace all of the people we’ve lost. It’s not easy to find good candidates for this job when they can make more money doing something far less stressful. It takes a lot of training, both initially and ongoing, to do this work. What we do takes skill. Replacing the years of experience and knowledge is not going to be an easy task.