Within and Beyond the Borders of Eliot: Essential Workers – Part 2 of 2

This column features businesses or people in Eliot and just beyond our neighborhood’s borders. This issue we focus on essential workers who have been on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to thank them for their commitment, service, selflessness, and putting their health and lives on the line to bring us the essential services the rest of us need to survive day to day. Sue Stringer and Monique Gaskins contributed to this column. NOTE: All interviews were conduced prior to the protests and the opening up of Multnomah County to Phase 1. Therefore, some situations, restrictions and details are now different than stated in the articles. Read with this in mind.

Kate Johnson, Grocery Worker

We all need groceries. Then a pandemic and lockdown strike. What does grocery shopping look like and how we are going to stay safe? Grocery workers are on the front lines and have greater risk since they are in contact with countless people who may or may not be contagious. However, throughout this pandemic grocery stores have all pivoted to offer us the food we need while trying to keep us and their workers healthy and safe.

Kate Johnson is a cashier at New Seasons. She works at the Grant Park location but her experience is similar to other grocery workers. In March when we closed down, Kate took almost two months off since she had a young child at home. Thankfully, New Seasons let her keep her benefits so her family was protected. If an employee had a health issue like asthma or was immunocompromised they could take off and still get paid and keep benefits for almost two months because the company understood the danger to those employees. At the end of April, employees had to choose to either go back to work or quit.

At that point, all the details of safety were worked out. Some of the changes were the logistics with one-way aisles, customers and employees wearing masks, providing hand sanitizer, wiping carts down after each use, installing sneeze guards at checkout stations, and using a disinfecting spray and wipes to sanitize check out station after every customer. Customers are waiting in line far from the cashiers and aisles. Extra employees were hired just to manage the lines of customers and also to sanitize the belts at each checkout stand after each customer. “It is very exhausting, cleaning continuously. The (New Seasons) friendliness factor doesn’t really work anymore because it is hard to hear with masks and the seriousness of the time,” Kate admits.

“To be fair, being a local company is in our favor.  The only other place there are stores is in California. Both those states are really on board with social distancing. Kroger has stores nationwide so it is harder to manage the message with all the different states and levels of strictness to enforce social distancing,” says Kate. Some additional benefits to retain employees and keep them safe are hazard pay plus lunch and dinner served free from the deli.

“Something that I really liked about New Seasons was that it acted as the idea of the ‘third place’.  Most people have work, home and then they have this third place where they have community. New Seasons was really that way especially for people without homes. They would come in and respectfully spend all day in the dining room – turn in cans, buy some lunch and sit there all day. And I think that goes like that for a lot of people, especially seniors. They would come in and get their cup of coffee, meet with their friends. We had game nights on Thursday, story time on Monday morning, we had classes, a mom’s group. That’s all gone.  It is really weird not to see these individuals every time I worked and I’m really worried about them.  I don’t know where they are, I don’t know if they’re ok.”

If there’s a silver lining in all of this Kate says it is that this is a reset. Customers like the new distancing and cleanliness and would like them to stay in place. We can rethink how we shop for our groceries and how we keep each other healthy and safe and maybe think about our grocery workers and how much they do to make that happen.

Leah Bandstra, High School Teacher

The first year as a high school teacher is not easy. Lesson plans, gaining respect from your students, offering a safe environment to learn, and preparing your students for the next school year and life are only some of the challenges a new teacher faces. Now add a pandemic and stay at home order to the list of those challenges and you have an overwhelming task.

Leah Bandstra, an Eliot resident, is a new teacher and she is just one of the thousands of teachers trying to adapt to a new way of teaching. Most have never taught online before and or used the software needed to accomplish this. Try putting this together in just a couple of weeks as well as trying to get students lunches and interim paper homework packets and you can see how difficult the logistics are for school districts.

Leah works as a high school chemistry teacher at Century High School in Hillsboro. Teaching 10th graders science is hard in a normal environment. “I was just hitting my stride with the students in February and then the rug was pulled out from underneath me,” says Leah, “and it’s a shame we couldn’t fill out the year and see how they changed by the end of the year.”

Leah got her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mastered in chemical oceanography so the subject matter comes easy to her. Having taught preschool, had kids of her own, and now teaching high school students, she can see the whole developmental process as to where kids start and where they need to end up to be successful not just in chemistry, but in life.

The new normal of teaching from a computer without a whiteboard or seeing your students and being able to physically do lab experiments are the hardest parts. With new family dynamics with multiple kids needing computer time, students getting jobs to help pay the rent because of parents being laid off, and just motivating students, attending time-specific online sessions were impossible. The result is each teacher recording lectures and creating online lessons for students to complete in their own time. Special Ed and English language learners are having a tough time and have extra challenges logistically.

“Most figured out that if they were passing then they weren’t going to be held accountable for the rest of the lessons for the year. Those that weren’t passing, the teachers have to do more work to get those kids across the finish line for their school year. There’s no reason for (the students) to do it and once they figured out that grades didn’t matter they were kind about it but, ‘we’re not going to do this for no reason that we can see’. I don’t have any recourse,” Leah laments.

The important take away is schools are such a central part of the community. Take schools away and that’s the central part of kids’ lives – to see their friends, have another human adult look them in the face, and see if they are okay. “School is necessary for the structure and regularity of routine. We are grownups and have coping mechanisms, time management, how to shower and take care of myself. A 15-year-old does not know how to do that.  Pandemic and now the protests require perspective and coping mechanisms. Most kids don’t have access to that kind of coping mechanism. School is a place that provides structures, holds boundaries for them, lets them know what’s acceptable, when we eat, go to the bathroom,” says Leah, “we need to help them with that.”

So, even if education was not what we expected this spring, Leah wants to emphasize, “It’s going to be ok if they need a couple of days to veg out. I promise you as a teacher of older children that the trauma that they will have from this (pandemic) will be lessened if you pay attention to their mental health rather than force-feed school.”

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