Why Schools in Southern Arizona are NOT Safe… An Employee’s Perspective

I am a paraeducator (i.e. a teacher’s aide for students with special needs) in one of Southern Arizona’s public school districts; and I ask that as you read this post, you keep the following in mind:

  • I am an aide, not a certified instructor; and therefore, do not have a union to protect and/or fight for me (or my co-workers).
  • I make thirty-two cents above minimum wage.
  • I often work (out of necessity) more than my allotted hours, and am not financially compensated for that time. (We earn comp time, not overtime wages.)

In the best of times, these are the dismal facts of my position. Like many of my co-workers (in the same, or similar posts), I work in this field because I adore kids, and wish to make their lives – to the best of my abilities – better. Accepting these facts is a part of the job.

In the middle of this pandemic, aides are working on-site with the students that have returned to our schools. Aides, not teachers.

Certified staff members (i.e. teachers) are still working remotely, via Zoom. This means that students that have returned to their designated campuses are not being taught in person. They – like their classmates at home – log on to their computers for coursework, and aides are available to assist them with assignments. Essentially, campuses – at this time – are little more than glorified daycare centers.

In addition, the district does not/cannot provide personal protective equipment to all of its employees, nor its students. Each individual is responsible for providing their own. (In my department, I have personally purchased masks for co-workers and their children.)

All persons on campus are technically required to wear a mask, but not all do. There are anti-mask staff members who refuse to wear more than a face shield. Face shields do not protect others in the classroom from the exhalation, coughing, or sneezing of those who wear them.

Students, especially those with special needs, often remove their masks and refuse to put them back on. This refusal is not – at this time – a reason to send a student home.

Our first day of “on-site learning” (a term that has confused many parents, by implying their children are being taught on campus), temperature checks were performed on all students. Students in our program (who enter from the back of the school, due to being bused in) have not been checked since. We have students that have more recently joined our classroom that have never been checked.

Staff members who present with fevers are asked to stay home until they have been fever-free for twenty-four hours without fever-reducing medication. They are then allowed to return to campus. They are not tested for COVID19, nor asked to provide proof that they do not have it.

If students present with a fever, parents are called; but do not always show to pick-up their children.

Sanitization of sites is minimal, at best. Aides are given spray bottles of bleach water (with which to spray areas that have been in use), but individual toys and/or learning modules are not always among the items being sprayed (many of which spend time in students’s mouths). Cleaning crews do wipe down tables and other classroom surfaces, but floors are only cleaned on Fridays.

I have expressed these concerns (both verbally and in writing) to the administration (as have other aides), and have repeatedly been told that we have no recourse. We can continue working, or resign.

We have seen in the news that COVID19 outbreaks are common among school districts that have re-opened their doors. Implying that we do not yet have proper safety protocols in place to prevent them.

In light of this, the district has taken a “they can easily be replaced” attitude toward their classified staff. Minimum-wage workers, who depend on their paychecks, are basically being asked to sacrifice their safety, and the safety of the students in their care.

We have not, as of yet, had a confirmed case of COVID19 on our campus. This may seem like good news. Sadly, however, it is not a matter of if the virus will present itself; it is a matter of when.

If you are sending your child to a campus in Southern Arizona, know that:

  • We cannot always convince your child to wear their mask.
  • Masks must be/are removed in order to drink from water bottles or water fountains, and to eat.
  • Not all staff members are wearing masks, and that face shields do not protect from transmission of the virus, especially in the close confines of a classroom.
  • Social distancing isn’t possible at this time. Not all classrooms are open, and the ones that are have too many people in them to make this possible.
  • Toys and learning modules and/or manipulatives are not always sanitized at the end of the school day.
  • In most cases, your child is not being taught on-site by a certified staff member.
  • The staff members who are willing to work on-site with your children make minimum-wage, and do not always have comprehensive health-care.
  • The staff members who are willing to work on-site with your children are working extra hours in order to prepare and clean classrooms, and are not financially compensated for their time.
  • We all – students and staff members – have families at home, some with members who are considered “high risk” for contraction of the virus; and we cannot protect them from our exposure to each other, nor our students.

I know that it is frustrating to have your child at home, missing out on both full-time education, and the social adaptation that occurs in a classroom environment.

It is frustrating for us not to be able to teach your children (who we also see as ours) in the ways we are accustomed to.

We miss our students. We work on-site everyday, because we believe that your children are worth our time and efforts… but we cannot protect them in our current state of operation.

Open campuses are a risk. Are they a risk worth taking?

Can I get an eraser, please?

Have you ever used a gum eraser? They can lift almost any unwanted stroke from a piece of paper without leaving a mark. It’s why I love them so much. They allow me to make a finished piece of art without a single hint of the ugly mistakes made along the way to creating it.

The same works for writing on a computer, or publishing on a blog. When I no longer want to feel (or look at) the words on the digital page, I can simply press a button to metaphorically burn them. No ash. No mess left behind. No visible proof they were ever really there. (Though I have heard it said that nothing put on the internet can ever truly be erased.)

In both of the above examples, however, when I start again I’m not really starting anew. True, I may be embarking on a different piece, with a different attitude or perspective; but the artist and/or writer behind the work is still the same.

There is no gum eraser or delete button that allows me to start from the beginning of who I am and remove all of the ugly bits… and I find that extremely frustrating, and incredibly sad.

After decades of trying to see myself through a different, more accepting lens – to experience the world through a fresh set of newly learned behaviors, I am still (in part) the broken little girl that walked hesitantly into the meandering footsteps of the shattered woman that I am.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that different lenses and better adapted behaviors haven’t helped me to be a more evolved version of who I was before I had them in my personal toolbox. All I’m saying is that they haven’t changed me as much as I had hoped they would.

I had (quite naively) hoped that through therapy, and a more cognitive understanding of my mental afflictions, that I would be (mostly) cured of them; and that has not been the case.

Knowing that “feelings are not facts” and “this too shall pass” doesn’t help to stop the heartache or the tears of intense, largely irrational emotions.

Knowing that there is a chemical imbalance in my various hormone levels doesn’t change my body chemistry.

Knowing that my neural pathways were built to reach the center of Crazy Town doesn’t change the fact that I’m a permanent resident of a neurologically f*cked up city.

Happiness, for me, is a fleeting state of existence. Fear – as my husband pointed out last night, during yet another breakdown – is my default setting for survival. Survival. I don’t live. I survive.

In the middle of one of my “spells” (I like to lend my lunacy a magical vocabulary. It makes it more palatable.), I am little more than a prisoner of my own mind. A part of me can detach and see that I’m acting erratically; but a larger part of me – a part forged in the tumultuous fires of Mount Doom (i.e. trauma) – rises like a dark and violent Phoenix from the ashes of pain and refuses to give over its monstrous, protective control.

If I could, I would take a gum eraser to the haunted forest of my past, and walk from a quieter wood a much more stable person. Sadly, pharmaceutical science has yet to create the memory-oriented gum eraser so many of us desperately need. So what do we do in the meantime?

I know what I do. I fight the urge – every goddam day – to annihilate myself. I don’t want to die, but I certainly don’t want to live with the sh*t that rattles around in my head.

Often, I feel like an actor in my own life. As if I’m playing a part that I don’t quite have the experience to pull off… but I’m just good enough that no one seems to notice. (Well, my husband does. But only because we live together, and there’s nowhere to hide from him.)

I don’t know what I want.

I don’t know what would make me happy.

I truly doubt that I can be happy.

I don’t even try to be happy, ’cause I’m scared to f*ck it up. (The fear and evil that you know are easier – and more familiar – than the ones that you don’t.)

I am scared that without the various masks I don so easily, that I am nothing. No one. Just another survivor who desperately depends on the Hall of Faces.

And I don’t know where to go from here.