Facing the unknown

Employed citizens of El Paso adapt to job changes

Seniya Kosaka, staff reporter

Coronavirus has infected all areas of his life, but he has yet to catch it.

The worldwide pandemic has affected the lives of employees in more ways than one. People who have not contracted COVID-19 are feeling the effects of the virus in their lives.

“Unfortunately, I was one of the ones that was laid off,” assimilation engineer Elton Poole said, “and now I’m just unemployed. I was one of the last ones to come board with them, so, of course, I was one of the first ones to be let go.”

From March to June, Poole was working from home every day, still reporting to his superiors through Zoom meetings or text messaging.

“I still did the job but, it didn’t last long,” Poole said.

Furthermore, Poole felt that the changes he experienced made his job more difficult to perform. One inconvenience was that he didn’t have the same resources at home that were in the office. Additionally, the correspondence with his supervisor was “not the same”.

“It would take time for the email to reach him and for him to respond,” Poole said. ”I could have a question in the morning and not get a response till the afternoon.”

Poole said that he believes “it was fair… it was even,” between workers and their superiors impacted by these changes. Although, because of his military benefit, he consistently receives an income on a monthly basis.

“I like to get up in the morning and have somewhere to be,” Poole said. “The layoff was the biggest issue I had. Luckily, I’m a disabled veteran… not everyone is as fortunate as I am.”

One of the things Poole missed most about the workplace is “a place of business to be at.”

“When I lost that, it was difficult to understand it, to deal with it, and be at home more than I preferred,” Poole said.

Poole felt that there’s a benefit of being home, but the experience isn’t entirely positive. He thinks too much time together could cause an issue between some families.

“You get more time spent with your family, but that could also cause a rift- because nobody’s used to being home with each other all the time,” Poole said.

Similarly, school employees have also taken a hard hit as a result of the pandemic.

“Since March, we were taken out of school… we have still not been to school yet,” Psychology teacher Kristina Mills said.

Teachers and students were originally supposed to have an extended spring break (2 weeks) as the first precaution to the early reports of Coronavirus.

“Just recently, we were making plans to come back, and it’s been extended another week,” Kristina Mills said.

Because of the contact teachers would usually have with students, the school must ensure that it is safe to return.

“I’ve noticed,” Mills said, “the building has changed- they’ve put scanners, direction arrows. I used to have tables; I now have desks, so that we can make sure that we ensure social distancing.”

Regarding the changes Mills underwent with her job, “there’s definitely been challenges”.

“The early start of it in March (last school year), I knew my kids. I had them for almost a year; they knew my expectations, they adjusted to online instruction fairly smoothly,” Mills said.

However, Mills began to face adversity once students were informed that they’d already earned the credit for her class. Knowing they’d completed the course, in a sense, this left little motivation for any further participation.

“It became difficult to get students to continue to go to class till the end of the semester,” Mills said.

Starting the new school year with new students has also proven to be problematic in the sense of “making those connections” with Mills’ students. She wants the students to know she is “on their side” and wants them to be successful; although, she cannot downplay what she expects from them.

“I am going to be understanding about technical difficulties, but I’m not going to lower my expectations,” Mills said.

Mills felt that educators are facing challenges in the virtual setting.

“I recognize the fact that the people that are making decisions are having to make very difficult decisions that impact a lot of people,” Mills said. “I don’t want to diminish their responsibility.”

On the other hand, teachers have their own cross to carry.

“We teachers are the ones that are having to do this on a daily basis and make it work,” Mills said.

Teachers and administrators both have their “unique challenges”. Personally, Mills wouldn’t want to be in the position of making all the tough decisions.

“But yet, I’m the one who has to deal with the implications-or the effects- of the decisions that they make,” Mills said.

Mills’ lifestyle has changed as a result of quarantine, as she stays home a lot more. She’s come to realize the differences compared to that of how she operated before.

“I didn’t realize how busy we were, until we were no longer doing things,” Mills said. “I’ve learned to appreciate things that I think I started to take for granted. When you get busy you can’t see your family.”

Mills identifies her coping method for all the pressure and stress as her “Faith in God”.

“I know that He is in control of all of this; I don’t understand everything, but I understand that He does,” Mills said with a smile.

Mills’ faith has led her to not stress over the things that are out of her hands, making it a lot easier for her.

“I have no control over this, but God does,” Mills said.

The benefit of Mills’ current work situation is being at home.

“When I need to go to the bathroom, I can go to the bathroom,” Mills said. “When I need to do a load of laundry between classes, I can do a load of laundry.”

Financially, Mills identifies one major benefit of being home.

“We have saved A TON in gas money. I can literally buy one tank of gas and it can last me a month now,” Mills said with heavy emphasis.

As far as recovering from COVID-19 in the workplace, Mills believes there will be new norms.

“I’m okay with the fact that people are more respectful of one another- as far as sanitary,” Mills said.

Mills is no stranger to taking cleanliness precautions. Around October to April, she claimed it’s “germfest city” in the classroom.

“As a society, I hope we will be more hygiene-conscious,” Mills said.

For teachers, the biggest safety precaution war for administrators to shut down schools due to the city-mandated health department guidelines.

“It was a little hectic at first,” English teacher Chelly Herrera said. “Just because of the fact that we had so many unknown factors. ”

The school Herrera works for has discussed and is taking into consideration return dates. They are trying to decide which style of learning is the best course of action.

“They’re considering our environment, ventilation systems, temperature checks- (with) gadgets that check temperatures as you walk into the building, they’re mandating masks,” Herrera said.

Before the pandemic, the school was familiar with use of technology and used online platforms to function. Despite this, teachers are still facing challenges trying to conduct their jobs.

“The challenge is trying to cooperate with everybody in school- including students and their parents,” Herrera said.

Making sure students had access and internet was a huge obstacle for the school.

“Once we were all online, it became problematic for all of us- not just here in El Paso, but across the nation. Everyone was online simultaneously, and when that happened things started to shut down and malfunction,” Herrera said.

Aside from technical issues, students are “reluctant” to engage online.

“Students have conveyed to me,” Herrera said, “that they feel more objectified speaking virtually.”

With all the changes occurring, the faculty has had to attain many different roles.

“Now it has become that we are counselors, technology guru’s, attendance clerks,” Herrera said. “All this time we’re spending on all these other jobs is less time working individually with the students- and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Trying to motivate students in this time is “the most difficult task (she’s) endured”. On top of that, there is a lack of communication due to an excessive amount of emails Herrera receives from everyone daily.

“Patience is growing slim, students are disengaging, teachers are burning out,” Herrera said. “How do we go about making sure that we’re doing the best we can for our students?”

Herrera is also affected directly, as she struggles with serious health issues.

“I have multiple sclerosis (a brain disease),” Herrera said. “I also have cardiomyopathy (a heart condition), Supraventricular Tachycardia, that puts me at the highest risk. I am greatly concerned for my well-being when I go back into the classroom.”

There are complaints that students have made about schoolwork piling up. Herrera said trying to adapt is the biggest problem for everyone.

“One of my good friends [Mills] likes to say, ‘we’re building the plane as we’re flying it!’,” Herrera said.

Herrera sees an even impact on both teachers and administrators and said, “there’s no one person who’s feeling this more than another.”

“We’re all feeling it in different ways,” Herrera said. “Nonetheless, the stress is still equally distributed amongst all of us.”

Herrera points out that custodians are “overworked” and “overburdened” and the task of cleaning exposes them to potential dangers; administration gets “heat” from teachers, parents, district leaders, and state leaders.

“It’s all interconnected,” Herrera said. “Some teachers who are experiencing health issues that are way worse than mine (are) fighting for their lives. I feel like… I’m no comparison to these individuals who strive every single day, regardless of their circumstances. When we’re dealing with things such as cancer- or issues similar to that- I think those individuals might also be up there as far as who’s got it worse.”

The impact these difficult times have had on Herrera emotionally, was devastating.

“Since school has started back, I have literally had three meltdowns,” Herrera said.

Herrera is plagued by demanding parents, emails that are sent as late as 3 A.M., and notifications on electronical devices that have no end.

“It’s a constant reminder that I’m plugged in,” Herrera said. “I feel like I’m a part of the matrix right now, and there’s no opportunity to rest. When I go to bed, I’m worried; when I wake up, I’m worried,”

Herrera is suffering from stress levels that are “so incredibly high.”

“I’ve had to sacrifice what I love to do for what I must do,” Herrera said in a candid tone.

According to Herrera, is running on about three and a half hours of sleep, confined to a computer screen throughout the entire day, endures headaches, and sometimes forgets to drink water because she is so occupied.

“The commonality between teachers is that the more you do, the more they pile on,” Herrera said. “It just becomes overwhelming when everybody starts tugging.”

Even worse, Herrera has become aware that her health issues have escalated. Because of her symptoms, she must take more medication which increases her risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Stress and heat are a huge factor for causing flare-ups for my multiple sclerosis, since it’s a neurological disease,” Herrera said. “My hearing (in my right ear) goes out, I have partial blindness, there’s a nerve in (my) face (that) starts to twitch- it starts to feel like electricity running through my face-, (and) my eyes start to twitch.”

Although this era is proving to be a rough patch in her life, Herrera goes about the circumstances in her own way.

“The way that I handle everything is: I try to look at all perspectives,” Herrera said.

There are other factors in Herrera’s life that are notorious for helping her cope through any situation she’s facing.

“I have a very supportive family,” Herrera said. My husband has been my rock. He (listens) to what I (have) to say, and he supports me. (As for) my son, I can count on him equally.”

With tears starting to form, Herrera begins to speak about her faith that functions as a life raft for her. Her relationship with God is “empowering” and it gives her “peace” that “all things will work together for good in His name.”

“I just couldn’t do anything without God in my life. I go through each and every day and I talk to Him because that’s how I cope,” Herrera said.

According to Herrera’s insight, employment is a benefit in itself.

“I’m grateful,” Herrera said, “every single day that I have a job, no matter how difficult it might be, I still have a job and I am still able to provide for my family.”

The opportunity to teach teenagers is also a benefit- it is something Herrera has always wanted to do.

“I get to work with human beings who have hearts, minds, emotions,” Herrera said. “If some learning transpires in the process, that’s even more powerful.”

What Herrera missed most about the workplace was the environment that was “alive” and “real”.

“I’m a show kind of person, rather than a tell,” Herrera said. Unfortunately, when students are tuned out inside the classroom, I’m telling no matter how much I’m trying to show. There’s nothing like somebody sitting down next to you, grabbing a paper, and saying, ‘Okay let’s do this together’.”

Aside from students, there are shared things among teachers that cannot be conducted through the virtual world.

“What I miss is also the camaraderie between the teachers,” Herrera said. “We have these heart-to-hearts in five minutes, while we’re ushering students and greeting them into the classroom.”

There are endless unknowns for what is to come, leaving little leeway for any predictions of a picture-perfect future.

“I don’t think we’ll ever fully recover,” Herrera said. “I think this is not going to go away- not anytime soon.”

However, Herrera has made it her goal to try her best and to be optimistic about the future.

“We’re all doing the best with what we’ve got and trying to do right by those we’ve served,” Herrera said, “that is the expectation that I hold for everyone.”

For Poole, the hope is for the government to come to a compromise with the regulations being set in place.

“I wish that the house of representatives and the senate could come to a bipartisan agreement on how to extend some of the things like unemployment benefits, the reopening of schools, the health care,” Poole said.

Mills misses students the most. She began to cry when speaking about her students.

“Yes, I see [them] there on a screen, but it’s different,” Mills said. “I miss being able to see kids walking in the hall and knowing maybe they’re having a hard day. I can see their body language; I can read their body language. I miss that.”

With a returning glint in her eye, Herrera straightened up with a confident smile. Within moments, her exigence for hope returned.

“We have fighters at Chapin who are inspirational to us all,” Herrera said.