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?