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Commentary: A Day in the Life of a Public School Teacher in Santa Cruz County During COVID – The New Normal

Dear Old Normal,

I miss the comfort you brought me knowing my days would follow a usual schedule in a predictable fashion. And while I know change is the only certain thing, I did appreciate all the stability, predictability, and consistent planning you allowed me as a teacher when times were normal. 

I understand we may not be seeing you again for a while, but knowing how we move forward right now matters for all of our children. Surely our ability and willingness to collectively move forward and create a new normal where all our children thrive will certainly be recorded favorably. As an educator who taught in the era of ‘normal’ and now through the pandemic, it matters that historians get this right. Teachers are amazing and capable and try to do right by our children, but are too often blamed for conditions out of their control. How will this story be told? Will writers think to look for the teachers who stood up and spoke out for themselves and their students? Will they write honestly about why educators left in record numbers, and why parents of means kept their children home? What about those children who were left out and behind? I hope there is a long look into our school boards, state education politics, and zip code funding and how those activities impacted the well being of our educators and the students.  

Will reporters seek out teachers, principals, and staff and write about how unsupported, tired, and stressed they were by conditions out of their control? Would they chronicle a ‘normal’ day at a public school during the pandemic? 

In January 2022, our county was considered to be in the highest infectious stage according to the data from the test sites from Santa Cruz County schools which listed 2,451 active cases. Some schools are now beginning their protocols for ‘substantial exposure’ which basically means everyone is considered to have been exposed. 

A Typical School Day

Teachers have multiple duties before the class day begins. Most arrive long before their contractual hours of 30 minutes prior to the first bell. The to-do list is long: Some plan, grade, sanitize, hold Independent Education Plan (IEP) meetings, look over the COVID testing schedule to see if their class will be pulled for testing, answer emails, check voicemails, prep for a 1:1 or small group aide. Many are assigned extra duties before school like helping with car drop-off, welcoming students, making sure masks are available and worn correctly, taking temps or scanning students’ QR codes for current testing status, supervising the playground, monitoring hallways for cell phone usage and concerning behaviors, comforting a child in distress, monitoring bathrooms and water stations, and making copies if time permits and the xerox machine is working. If they are lucky to catch it in time, they read that very urgent email from the district office informing them of a mandatory virtual meeting after school. They assess how many teachers will be out and which students would need extra support today because their 1:1 was also absent or had quit. 

Then the first bell rings. Four teachers are absent but no subs have been found to lead those classes. Depending on the school district’s staffing, the solutions vary. So, on this particular day, to cover the absences, the principal cancels their important meeting with a concerned parent, another teacher leaves an IEP meeting, and the music teacher uses her prep time to cover until a district office person arrives. The fourth class will rotate teachers willing to sub. Another teacher texts the district’s psychologist, hoping she is on campus and asks his students to start their warmup activity so he can sit down next to a student – a known cutter and suicidal – who is crying by the door. This is occurring on the regular now as students and staff are out ill, caring for someone ill, or traumatized and overwhelmed. The bi-weekly testing is catching more positives. Those students, teachers, and staff will have to quarantine and miss more school. Many school districts still have outstanding positions. Additionally, we are experiencing mass retirements and rising teacher/sub shortages.  

Finally, everyone is sorted for now, so the HR staff person arrives to relieve the music teacher in time for her to run to her scheduled class. A parent stays with their child as the 1:1 aide did not show. A student starts coughing again behind his mask and the remaining students express concern and move away. They ask the teacher to open the windows. The teacher sends this student to the health clerk where a protocol of steps will be strictly followed depending on school policy. The decision tree is made available to every parent and includes the directive for the student to not come to school if ill. The student explains through coughing fits that his father sent him because he had to work. He told his son to just keep his mask on. Soon another student is pulled from the same class as her COVID test comes back positive. During the 4th period, the intercom announces what group is to go line up for their bi-weekly test session. A science teacher is surprised because the announcement comes later than expected right in the middle of their science labs and the RSP teacher had rearranged her schedule already to finish the mandatory testing for a student who now needs to go get tested. That music teacher we mentioned above watches as her entire class stands up to leave. 

It isn’t even lunch hour. 

On this day, as cars line up at the Santa Cruz County Office of Ed (SCCOE) testing site, schools are expected to stay open even as health experts predict a COVID surge. Closing schools to protect the staff and students can only occur if the California Department of Health compels them. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case just because we recognize that having open schools is so important for the well being of our students,” SCCOE Superintendent Farris Sabbah said. 

Well being of the students? What does that mean in February 2022? 

A Santa Cruz County public school teacher
(name withheld on request)

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