Dear Secretary French,
You are no doubt hearing from many of my colleagues this weekend, following your letter Friday evening that instructs Vermont schools to no longer engage in PCR surveillance testing and contact tracing. You will apparently be releasing further information about next steps sometime this next week.
I expect a lot of what you are hearing from those of us in education is largely the same thing said in a variety of ways: WTH, dude? I’m feeling that, too, but in the interest of holding your attention, I’ll add some personal perspective.
I am writing to you as a paraeducator who works in an elementary school classroom with students dealing with behavioral and academic challenges. I have seven years of experience as a paraeducator and behavior interventionist, and after being away from school during the 2020/2021 school year over pandemic-related safety concerns, I made the equally easy and difficult choice to return to the career that makes me feel whole.
Since making that decision in July, I’ve faced the most challenging, fulfilling, scary, hopeful, and uncertain days of my working life. After the trials and tribulations of farming, newspaper reporting and editing, and behavior management, that’s saying something. Yet I haven’t regretted my decision once. At least not until Friday night.
Sec. French, your letter was deeply disappointing and frustrating to me for quite a few reasons, and they go well beyond the headline-grabbing controversy of its contents.
This decision and its timing smack of ivory tower thinking.
Have you or your fellow policy-makers experienced the stress of managing a classroom full of students while also trying to cover unprecedented staffing gaps during a pandemic? Like, firsthand? Have you and your staff left your office to go cover for the 15 teachers, paraeducators, and cooks who are out sick so that the school can stay open? Because supervisory union staffs have been doing that very thing. Have you talked to the special educators who’ve had to cancel services for the day to make sure math or gym or one-on-one support is still available for students?
Have you tried to rebuild a relationship with a behaviorally challenged student who was out for nearly a month because of close contacts, then contracted COVID-19, and upon their return you’re suddenly back to where you were on the first day of school and have to start all over? Have you felt what it’s like to manage the wide variety of students’ face masks – some that fit well, some that are way too big, some that are dirty from being worn day after day, some that won’t be worn correctly no matter how many times you ask to please fix it – there are in a classroom?
And by the way, most of this was happening before the appearance of omicron and, obviously, before you dispensed with contact tracing and PCR testing. Now that those safety nets are off the table, I don’t know … I’m certainly not looking forward to going to work tomorrow.
It sure would have been great if this decision had been announced along with the next steps accompanying it. Across the state, school administrators spent countless time revising pandemic-related procedures to start 2022 off as safely as possible, and they had to do it again mid-week. Now, as of this past Friday night, those revisions are suitable for the bottom of a bird cage. Except we won’t know what they’ll be replaced with until (hopefully) Tuesday.
One other thing regarding the release of your letter … it was insulting to see it issued just in time for the Friday night news dump. Get it out late on a Friday and hope it’s forgotten or at least less of a big deal by Monday. I mean, maybe it’s just coincidence, but it feels too coincidental to be a coincidence. And those of us working in Vermont’s schools, along with our students, their parents, and the Vermont community in general, expect and deserve better than that. Going into the third year of the pandemic, we’ve all more than earned that sort of respect and dignity.
The 2021/2022 school year has thus been driven by uncertainty and worry. This past week I watched educators with decades of experience struggle in ways I’ve never seen before. My expectation is that this week the struggle will be even greater. And understandably so. After all, going into school each day feels like we’re walking onto the battlefield, wearing only our jammies and armed with nothing but NERF guns.
We’re watching and waiting, Sec. French. We want to know that you and yours have our backs right now, when we need them most. Please don’t let us down.