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

Before classes begin for the day, elementary music teacher Penelope Quesada gathers her most commonly used cleaning supplies and places them around the classroom in places of convenience.

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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