I’ve been a paraeducator for 17 years and work with students in Grades 8 to 11. I’m also someone with an underlying health condition that places me in the higher risk group for severe COVID-19.
Despite promises from the federal government, vaccines are in short supply, and it may be months before most school staff have been vaccinated. So, as many Minnesota students return to in-person school, I wanted to share firsthand what it has been like for essential school workers like me during this pandemic.
When time came this fall to go back to school, I provided medical documentation highlighting the dangers if I worked in person. I was approved for my accommodation to work with students remotely. Then, I was quickly notified there was no remote work in my district. The only work for me was in-person, working closely with students, which meant potentially exposing myself to COVID-19.
The choices I had were to go on unpaid leave; go on voluntary layoff and apply for unemployment, which would mean receiving two-thirds of my pay; or, go into work and hope with all the procedures put into place I would remain healthy.
This decision was not an easy one for me. I agonized over what is the right thing for me to do. I want to be there for my students and a part of my amazing educational team, but I also want to be healthy for my own children. I want to be able to pay my bills, and I want to be well enough to write out those checks.
Ultimately, I decided to support my students in-person. I was educated extensively by the district regarding all the COVID-19 protocols that were put into place. When students arrived, these protocols were put to the test. This was no longer hypothetical.
I will briefly explain how two main COVID protocols played out last fall:
Students will wear masks.
In my experience, this has been hit or miss. My students have a hard time following expectations, and mask-wearing is no exception. My district said they would enforce the mask mandate and provide consequences for those who violated the policy. This has proven easier said than done. Staff are left dealing with unmasked students for days, sometimes weeks, while we progress through enforcement steps. And some paras work with students who are medically unable to wear masks.
Students will socially distance.
We were given time to arrange desks and spaces used by students to make it easier for them to maintain social distancing guidelines. This has also proven difficult, not only for students, but for staff supporting students. Many of our para jobs require working literally hand-over-hand with students, and I don’t think the state guidelines reflect the reality of how we do our jobs.
In other words, for much of the fall, I — and many fellow paras — have regularly worked closer than six feet with students who are not wearing masks. State regulations only require a higher level of personal protective equipment for extremely unusual procedures. Meanwhile, many of us continue to work even though we have COVID-19 risk factors that could lead to hospitalization, the ICU, intubation or even death.
Now, many of us are going back to school across the state, even as new, dangerously contagious COVID-19 variants are spreading.
From all my years of experience, I know how much students benefit from in-person instruction. But no one deserves to have to make this terrible choice between our paycheck and our health.
Gov Tim Walz is an educator. He knows firsthand how support staff puts the needs of students first before our own — every day. I am urging the governor take executive action to ensure that school employees maintain hours and pay; that safety and PPE is improved; and, that all at-risk staff are accommodated to ensure Minnesota’s kids reach their fullest potential.