By Stacy Yanko, 2020 NJEA ESP of the Year

What a difference a month makes. Just one month ago, it was business as usual. We were mapping out upcoming meetings, focused on marking period dates and deadlines.  Colleagues were talking about Spring Break plans, and I was excitedly preparing for my trip to the National Education Association (NEA) ESP Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.  I was supposed to fly to New Orleans on Wednesday, March 18, my mom’s 75th birthday, which was okay because we celebrated early and she and my dad were planning to be in Florida.  At least we got to  celebrate her birthday early.

Like I said, what a difference a month makes; for that matter, what a difference a day makes – and in these times – things change by the hour. The new “normal” is uncertainty.

My district announced that our schools would be closed after Monday, March 16.  I went in to work my regular time that day and worked most of my regular day trying to tie up loose ends, preparing documents for the board of education meeting being held that evening and trying to figure out what I would need in order to effectively work from home.  I had been one of the many staff members to volunteer to deliver food to our free and reduced lunch population, so when it was confirmed that I was needed the next day, I decided I would wrap up getting what I needed to bring home on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, I went to my office about an hour and a half before I was needed for food delivery.  One of my colleagues, a school counselor, was there to deliver food and was doing the same as I was, making sure we would have what we needed to work from home.  Our superintendent stopped in to see us and very calmly and nicely requested that we get what we needed and be prepared not to return until the schools are reopened. We finished up, packed our cars and went to assist with food delivery.

The food delivery program at Hopatcong High School.

What a team effort that was!  Our town is anything but flat, and spans a large area. It took 15 minutes to get to the farthest delivery address. Our van driver was awesome and had put the route in order. My colleagues were fantastic and we developed a system. One would put the milk in the bags and the other assisted me in walking the meals to the doors.  For some, we were walking up steep hills and then steps up to homes – some labeled for easy confirmation that you were at the right address, some not, but we did our best. The families knew deliveries would be coming, so we would place the food items by the door, knock or ring the door bell, and leave.  Your heart never feels so much as when you get back in the van and look back to see a mom with tears in her eyes mouthing the words “Thank you,” touching her heart and giving you a thumbs-up. The route took about two and a half hours.

By the time I got home on Tuesday, we had received another email informing staff that we would no longer be allowed in the building beginning on Wednesday. As soon as I remembered that I forgot an item I would need from my office, I jumped in my car and ran in the school to get it. It was eerie. The long hallway was dark, and there was a shadowy figure at the far end. I grabbed the item I needed and haven’t been back.

Wednesday was my first day working from home and it felt like I was in a marathon. I thought I might enjoy sleeping in a little and wearing my pajamas to work, but it is not all that it is cracked up to be. I want to be back in school with my students and colleagues.

As the secretary for the high school guidance office, I support everyone – students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, community members; well, everyone.  I work very closely with one of our school counselors, Linda, on scholarships, and currently, we have been working with our seniors on their local scholarship packets (which I should point out were originally scheduled to be distributed on March 16, but were distributed on March 13 in anticipation of the school closure). 

These packets are hand-delivered to each senior and were mailed to the 13 seniors who were absent. This packet consists of eight separate scholarship applications and 22 scholarships which use the same application. Even though the complete packets were provided to students in paper form, I spent Wednesday making sure they were available on the school website and via email through our BlackBoard Connect and Naviance applications. 

Yanko’s work station at home.

In the meantime, I was answering emails, making sure I had no voicemail messages and trying to contact a parent in regard to a registration appointment originally scheduled for that week. The nice part was maintaining contact with colleagues via text, email and phone. When my designated work time was “over,” I received a call from our school nurse, who is coordinating the delivery of food to our eligible students; she needed confirmation of a name and address, so of course, I assisted her. This is what we do. We are a team.

I had a short break between that call and logging on to another call regarding the new health benefits plan that our district has approved – the state plan. The call covered the documents that are required by April 1st. Then there was a short time between that call and participating in the town hall call with NJEA leaders, Governor Murphy and Dr. Repollet, the state education commissioner. After that, I emailed some information to my administrators, and my Wednesday officially ended by 7:30pm.

Fortunately, Thursday was less hectic. I was able to post our scholarship packet on the front page of our district website and interact with my colleagues and answer a few questions. I received an unfortunate email from one of our students informing me that she and her sister had not received lunches even though she believed she was eligible. I immediately emailed her back and called our school nurse who was able to verify the information and responded to the student, as well. When I talked to our nurse, Maureen, she also confirmed my availability for food delivery, so beginning on March 23, I will be on the delivery crew on Mondays and Fridays.

Aside from my school work, as the president of a small local association, I am trying to be available to my members and share with them as much information as I can. As I mentioned earlier, we are in the process of changing to the state health benefits plan; at the same time, we are getting more information about the Chapter 78 relief bill. It is complicated enough to switch plans, now tell people they may need to switch again a month after they begin a new plan – ugh.  But I am trying to do my best to educate my members on their responsibilities while working from home, COVID-19, the district health benefits changes and the Chapter 78 relief bill/ESP Job Justice legislation, as well as be available for any other questions or assistance they may need.

Friday began with my Wi-Fi not working. Thank goodness I was able to use my phone. I was able to participate in an “ask” from NEA for information regarding how food delivery is being handled, as well as how school closures threaten some school employees’ jobs. Fortunately, my husband was able to reset the Wi-Fi, so we were good to go. Did I mention that I have two undergraduate students in my house (my daughter and my son’s girlfriend), as well as a graduate student (my son)?  My husband is now home from work, as well. We are trying to do the best that we can to get work done and not get on each other’s nerves.  I am happy to say that we are eating family dinners and having family game nights while socially distancing the best that we can. 

This week, I have some education verification/transcript requests to do and we will see what else comes my way. I have already answered some emails and spoken to colleagues via phone and text.

A highlight each day is my dog, Belle. She snuggles up by me on the couch while I do work.  I miss my students and colleagues. It will be a long haul for all of us, but we need to remain positive, kind, and remember that as a team we all have valuable positions and opportunities to help each other and our community.

Stacy Yanko is a guidance secretary at Hopatcong High School, the president of the Hopatcong Office Personnel Association (HOPA). Learn more about Yanko in this feature article in the NJEA Review

 

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