Maggie Cummings: Salt Lake City teachers working hard in pandemic conditions

While lawmakers meet over Zoom, Meadowlark Elementary teachers and staff are in school.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur interacting with his students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Arthur is working through the kinks of teaching his 6th grade kids, many of which don't have internet access, online. He was named the Utah Teacher of the Year.

On Wednesday, while Rep. Brad Wilson and the Utah Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee met via Zoom to craft an education funding package to deliberately punish Salt Lake City School District teachers for providing “remote” education, the Meadowlark Elementary parking lot had teacher and staff cars in it from before 7 a.m. through past 5 p.m.

Students with severe disabilities arrived via district buses at 8 a.m. to meet in small groups with special education teachers and paraprofessionals. Throughout the day, general education students and/or students receiving resource services came in for small group or individualized instruction. Many more students came simply for a safe, disruption-free place to work.

Our teachers spent about 12 hours the other day working to serve students both remotely and in person. Our office staff, paraprofessionals and teachers helped, in person, families with technology issues, and to pick up Angel Tree clothing and toiletry donations.

The custodial staff worked from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. to keep the building clean and safe for all those who entered. At midday, the cafeteria staff fed around 300 children “grab-and-go” breakfast and lunch, which they prepared at school starting at around 5:30 a.m., as they do every day. Also, in the middle of the day, with the help of a generous donation from Usana and the Utah Agricultural Society, Meadowlark provided groceries for around 800 people in the community (through a partnership with the Utah Food Bank, we provide 400 to 900 people food bags every week.)

At the end of in-person small groups or synchronous online instructions, and before starting their many hours of answering emails, correcting assignments and preparing for the next day, many teachers loaded bags of food into their cars and drove them to the homes of their students who could not come to school in the middle of the day to pick up food because they’re working or have been quarantined. They also deliver books, homework packets and gifts.

What Rep. Wilson and some others do not understand is that there are many communities, like ours at Meadowlark, whose parents are the “invisible” front line workers of our state: grocery store cashiers, stockers or delivery people, Amazon warehouse and delivery workers, mechanics, municipal workers, lawn and outdoor care workers, housekeepers, construction workers, plumbers, etc. They are the front-line workers, paid hourly, keeping those of us with the privilege of sick leave, health insurance, salaries and economic flexibility, comfortable.

Meadowlark is 100% free lunch. If someone in one of our families gets sick or must quarantine, the family does not earn money for at least two weeks, usually much longer. Approximately 70% of our families are Hispanic. Our community is three times more likely to suffer severe symptoms and four times more likely to die than the white population.

As one mom put it at our school community council meeting Tuesday, “I understand why they [east-side families] want their school open. We can’t. Who’s going to pay my bills if I get sick? Who’s going to pay the doctor if I have to see one? Or, God forbid, if my children get sick? Who’s going to pay the bill if I have to bury someone?”

I am incredibly proud of how much Salt Lake City School District teachers, paraprofessionals and staff are doing for students and the community to help us all through this enormously difficult time. They deserve so much more than the slap they got from the proposed appropriation bill.

Maggie Cummings

Maggie Cummings is the principal of Meadowlark Elementary School in Salt Lake City.