Deborah Gatrell: 2020 has been a disorienting year

It is good time to take a deep breath and ground ourselves.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Earthquake damaged to the Sears mansion, in Salt Lake City, Monday April 13, 2020

When the Army rolled out a new portable oxygen system for helicopter pilots, we went through Air Force high-altitude chamber training to prepare to fly at altitudes that would cause hypoxia (oxygen deprivation).

The Air Force insisted we complete the full course of study, which included instruction on ejection seats. As helicopter pilots, we protested. To no avail. Training would be completed as prescribed.

Simulating 18,000 feet in the high-altitude chamber was a fascinating experience. The goal was to identify our symptoms when experiencing oxygen deprivation so we might recognize it and take corrective action in the future. Some people got silly, others got sad. I just got confused enough to know something was off.

This year has been disorienting. Some of us have gone silly. Others are sad. Things are definitely off.

We knew a presidential election would suck the oxygen out of the room. Other than an awful state tax law, which united Utahns in a successful effort to overturn it, the year started out with predictable rhythms. Those who paid attention to international news knew of the developing pandemic, but it seemed far away.

Then our schools, churches, businesses and many public services closed in March. My school was quarantined. Since then, we’ve also experienced earthquakes, hurricane-force winds, wildfires and smoke.

This all threw us off balance.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla got sick. Rep. Ben McAdams went to the hospital.

There would be no return to school this spring. Teachers were hailed as heroes for the quick transition to distance learning. School staff developed walk-through graduations. Hope that the virus might pass this summer was misguided while the election heated up. Conspiracy theories and misinformation confused the public. Racial unrest exploded.

Teachers begged state leaders to ensure data-driven decisions for a safe return to school. A pandemic under control, appropriate personal protective equipment, distance learning options for safety seemed reasonable requests. The response? Get back to work. Teachers aren’t special. Kids need to be in school. Disorienting inconsistency. Gaslighting. Maddening.

Teachers quit.

Two teachers from my school were infected this summer. Leaders tell us COVID-19 doesn’t spread in school, but cases climbed when schools and universities reopened. They told us students would not get ill very often, then determined that 15- to 24-year-olds were driving the spread.

An older neighbor died.

My friends in the Salt Lake City School District revamped their curriculum to teach online. I tried teaching in person and online at the same time. Two months into the school year, my school experienced an outbreak. Distance learning for two weeks. Many students treated it like an extended break. The next month we closed a second time.

Herman Cain died. President Donald Trump went to the hospital. Margarita Satini died. State Sen. Deidre Henderson went to the hospital. Sen. Mike Lee got sick.

There were not enough subs when teachers got sick, so district staffers were pulled in along with other teachers who gave up planning periods. Students got sick and others were quarantined multiple times. While my district had followed Health Department guidance to close at 15 cases for months, my high school stayed open with 20-plus cases, and no explanation, just before winter break.

A teacher from my school is in the hospital.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee prepared a great 2021 education budget, then soured it by excluding Salt Lake City School District teachers from a bonus to teachers and support staff unless their locally elected board changed local education policy.

More teachers are leaving at the end of the semester in January.

We’ve made it to the end of a wild year. This is a good time to take some deep breaths and ground ourselves. We need to think clearly about a way forward as we come out of the pandemic.

I realize the pandemic is global and the surge is happening everywhere. I also realize we have handled things particularly badly here in the United States. It’s embarrassing. Where once we led the world in science, many have rejected it in favor of personal feelings and opinions.

Take a deep breath. Let’s start the new year out on the right foot. Love your neighbors. Be kind to the teachers. Stay safe. Trust science. And when it’s your turn, get the COVID-19 vaccine so we can all get on with our lives — sooner rather than later.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a member of the Utah National Guard and a social studies teacher in Granite School District. Her opinions are her own.

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