She's Been Teaching For 18 Years. She Says This Year Is Her Most Stressful Yet

Sep 15, 2021
Originally published on September 15, 2021 3:24 pm

Students in Louisville, Ky., have been back in classrooms for a month this school year, and already parents are pressuring the governor to address the district's rising COVID-19 case numbers. As of Tuesday, Jefferson County Public Schools has reported 379 positive cases among staff and 2,866 positive cases among students, with 13,346 students being quarantined in a district of about 96,000 students.

After a special session last week, Kentucky's legislature passed a bill reversing the state's school mask mandate, giving the decision-making power to school districts instead. JCPS superintendent Martin Pollio has said the district-wide mask mandate would remain in place.

JCPS teacher Penelope Quesada sees over 100 students a day between her six classes at Semple Elementary School. The majority of students at Semple qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals, which is a commonly used measure of poverty. Quesada said she has spent nearly $600 of her own money on cleaning supplies and other precautionary measures.

She's taught for 18 years, and said this year has been more stressful and emotional than any other year.

"Even with all the precautions, having the risk of students getting COVID or passing it to each other, it's almost like a life and death situation that I didn't have before. We care a lot about these kids and these families. I'm worried about the kids and their caregivers. We have a lot of grandparents that take care of the kids," she explained.

In addition to its current mask mandate, JCPS offers voluntary weekly testing for students and staff, and on Tuesday the school board approved a requirement that employees either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. The school board decision comes after President Biden announced new steps to encourage K-12 schools to mandate masks for all, require vaccines for employees and step up testing for COVID-19.

Quesada said it feels like they're 100 days into the year, instead of just a few weeks.

Earlier this month, photojournalist Natosha Via spent a day with Quesada to see what being in school looks like right now:

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Quesada turns on a fan outside her classroom door. She spends most of her time before class on COVID-19 precautions. She has spent nearly $600 of her own money on air purifiers and fans to improve the ventilation in her classroom.
Natosha Via for NPR
Quesada greets her second grade music class and gives them each a squirt of hand sanitizer as they enter her classroom.
Natosha Via for NPR
In order to keep them as separated as possible, students in Quesada's third grade class stand on carefully placed stickers on the floor. Because of the space instruments take up, and the need for students to be able to see their teacher, there's often only room for children to stand 3 feet apart, instead of 6.
Natosha Via for NPR
"I wish that schools serving the low economic families would be the priority. If those families get sick it's really traumatic. Who is going to advocate for these kids? That's what's stressful for us teachers because we care a lot about these kids and these families. I'm worried about the kids and their caregivers, we have a lot of grandparents that take care of the kids," Quesada says.
Natosha Via for NPR
Students in Quesada's third grade music class all get the opportunity to play a xylophone. Quesada does what she can to keep the instruments clean. Her xylophones are expensive and wiping them down regularly could ruin them, so instead she spends her morning wrapping them in plastic wrap.
Natosha Via for NPR
Quesada spends some class time helping students adjust their masks or replacing them if they need new ones.
Natosha Via for NPR