Jeff Garcia, a sixth grade special education teacher in St. Paul, wishes the district would provide more medical-grade masks and rapid testing. He's seen several colleagues who are also teachers of color leave the district this year. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Jeff Garcia is a graduate of St. Paul Public Schools’ Urban Teacher Residency to recruit and train teachers of color. He teaches sixth grade special education students, particularly those with autism and learning disabilities at Parkway Montessori Middle School in St. Paul. So far this month, St. Paul Public Schools has held classes entirely in person.

Many kids are happy to be back because they’re around their friends again. And that is a bright spot. But we’ve been missing a lot of kids. On the cold days, we maybe had a fourth to a third of our kids in the building. Some classes had eight or 10 kids in them when normally they have 25 or 26. So very, very, very quiet rooms. 

It’s been very hard to teach anything new because with so many kids out, we constantly have to double back if a kid comes in who hasn’t been in for a few days.

It’s ironic because [with smaller classes] it’s a lot easier to take a couple kids out to work on those foundational skills that they need, especially as a special-ed teacher, when it’s a smaller class. It has been a silver lining that we get to spend a little more time one-on-one or in small groups doing activities with these kiddos that a lot of times will just fly under the radar. 

In the special-ed department, there’s been a few people that have been out with COVID or with a close exposure in their home. I think that’s felt especially by the kids that have the most need. Especially with my kids on the autism spectrum, they just have more off days than usual. Because their go-to people are not around, or there’s always a new teacher rotating through.

I think that it could be as simple as: a short period of distance learning, maybe a week. Time to reset, time to make sure that kids can get tested, that staff can get tested. We don’t need to spend the rest of the year in distance, and I don’t want to.

st. paul teacher jeff garcia

I think that it could be as simple as a short period of distance learning, maybe a week. Time to reset, time to make sure that kids can get tested, that staff can get tested. And then medical-grade masks and rapid tests available, not just for students who feel sick at school, but for staff. We don’t need to spend the rest of the year in distance, and I don’t want to.

The conversation around education in both cities has been that we need more teachers of color. I was told I’d be appreciated: We want you to stick around. I really would like the districts to show that they actually mean that. I don’t know if some of my friends will want to stick around St. Paul after this year, and that’s a really upsetting place to be.

I had a really good friend, excellent teacher, who left this year. Another friend of mine from the same cohort went to teach at a charter school.

I myself am not thinking about leaving after this year. I want to stay in St. Paul. But it’s hard to tell my friends that they should stay when parents, students, and teachers are being treated the way that they are.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.