For the last seven years, Erika Esparza has looked forward to the start of the school year bringing laughter and smiles back to the halls of Sunset Elementary School in Hermiston, where she works as the lead secretary. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the hallways at Sunset and all of the other west Umatilla County schools remain quiet and empty.

“It’s a big change for us,” Esparza said. “We’re used to hearing the kiddos’ laughter, and parents stopping by to see us or have lunch with their kids. We don’t get to see many folks these days.”

Support staff at schools are finding the impacts of distance learning to be just as challenging as their teacher colleagues. With all hands on deck to provide support to families, some support staff are learning new skills on top of their regular duties.

“We’ve become IT here in the office because we’re taking calls from parents trying to troubleshoot logging onto to their kid’s Chromebook or their student’s email or something else that isn’t working,” Esparza said. “We have some of those resources at our hands to help without them having to go to their teacher or to IT. We literally walk them through step-by-step as much as we can, but sometimes there’s only so much we can do.”

Getting creative about how to continue to serve students and families is necessary. Longtime Echo School Food Service Director Tera Longhorn said she’s tried to find ways to continue to provide comfort foods and warm meals to students, even with the challenges of delivering those meals. When the district first closed school in March, she prepared prepackaged or cold meals. Now she’s switching things up as Echo delivers meals directly to students’ houses.

“I decided when we came back with distance learning that I wanted to do something different,” said Longhorn, who’s in her 22nd year with Echo Schools. “The students can get tired of the same old sandwich, so I’m trying to make it as much like normal — when they’d be at school — as possible.”

That means packaging meals like spaghetti with instructions for reheating so students can have a lunch at home during the week. Longhorn said she has learned to be specific with her instructions for meals for students who are trying to heat meals on their own.

“I had to find the right packaging materials, put a label on it with how to cook it, and then anticipate what the kid’s going to do with that meal when they’re at home,” she said. “I realized I needed to add another label that instructed them to take the sandwich out of the foil before putting it in the microwave. I didn’t have to think about things like that before.”

All who work in schools are having to do their jobs differently, which has caused significant stress and anxiety for many staff members and students alike.

Cristal Delgado, a counselor at McNary Heights Elementary School in Umatilla, said she’s seen a “huge” increase in anxiety with distance learning and the kids not being in their classrooms with their friends and teachers.

“Anxiety can show in so many different ways,” Delgado said. “Living in the unknown has been especially hard for these kids. I want them to know I support you, I’m listening and I got you.”

Delgado created a survey for students to use emojis to express how they’re feeling, “and they all expressed that they want to go back to school and see their teachers and their friends.”

Their teachers want to see them, too, and Delgado is doing what she can to support teaching staff.

“First and foremost, I want to support the teachers,” she said. “If I know the teachers are in a healthy mental place, then I know they can be the best teacher they can be for the kids.”

Delgado has created a teacher survival kit with inspiring videos for McNary teachers, and she facilitates a support group on Friday mornings, and has provided valuable information on self-care. Making sure she takes care of herself is also a priority for Delgado.

“I do think sometimes people forget (counselors) are also humans and we hear a lot of things,” Delgado said. “When we hear things from parents or children who come in, you have to have coping strategies and ways to debrief after those conversations. I can’t take care of everyone else if I don’t take care of myself.”

For Delgado, that includes running and having her own support group, including keeping in close contact with other counselors in the district.

“It’s hard to turn it off when you know these kids need you and the teachers need you,” she said. “It’s a challenge, and it’s a new challenge.”

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