Four NWC ‘essential workers’ share how COVID has impacted their careers
Amid the pandemic, a unique phenomenon occurred. The challenging circumstances magnified occupations that had easily been overlooked in the past and revealed those careers and services that are vital. From the checkout clerk to the childcare provider, communities got a glimpse at how intertwined our society is and how much we rely on each other in our day-to-day lives.
The Northwest Conference is home to countless individuals whose work was impacted by the pandemic. In this story, we look at four people in different careers and how COVID changed their work environment.
David Hoffner is a long-time teacher and the Executive Director of Faith Formation at Minnehaha Academy. At MA, COVID ushered the faculty, staff and students into another season of crisis. In August of 2017, the school suffered a tragic explosion and loss of life. They had to rebuild and were only in the renovated school building for six months when the pandemic shut down in-person learning last spring.
“It has been a time of great stress, with people working so hard to deliver on our mission to provide high quality education integrating Christian faith and learning in unique circumstances,” Hoffner said.
Minnehaha leadership had to look at school from a new angle. They currently offer both in person and online learning, all modeled to keep students and teachers safe. For instance, instead of one classroom having 18 kids, students would now learn in two pods of nine.
“We have smaller pockets all engaging together, meeting in separate rooms,” Hoffner said.
The lunchroom was converted into space for three additional classrooms and, at the Upper School, chapel goes out on a live feed to the students instead of gathering together in a large group. To move kids around and spread them out physically, additional staff were hired as well. Teachers had to sort out new technologies and design lessons differently to accommodate both students in the classroom and at home simultaneously.
“I could not be more proud of my colleagues who, every day, show up and deliver on our mission and don’t complain,” Hoffner said. “They continue to hammer on for the good of the kids.”
Students adjusted quickly to wearing masks, staying in small groups and eating lunch in the classrooms. However, the feel of the school building changed.
“There used to be a buzz in the hallway all the time. Now there’s just less movement,” Hoffner said.
Teachers have adapted, but all the changes have required a heightened level of creativity and resourcefulness to engage students.
“Many of us are used to a certain level of energy and engagement in the room and it’s difficult to do when there are socially-distanced desks and people in masks. Teachers have to work that much harder to find creative ways of engagement,” Hoffner said.
As a result of their due diligence, the school has been able to offer in-person learning throughout the year and has seen no community transmission of COVID thus far.
“We’ve shown it can be done, but it’s coming at a great cost,” Hoffner said. “It’s beautiful and meaningful work that has placed an amazing amount of stress on teachers.”
Teachers are exhausted and stretched thin.
“This is a sabbath type of vocation because you have breaks built in,” Hoffner said. “My colleagues have earned this coming summer in a remarkable way and I’m so grateful they have that coming.”
Food Retail Worker
Mark Dischinger of Brookdale Covenant is the maintenance manager at a Cub Foods in Minneapolis. He was an integral part of putting safety precautions in place throughout the store.
“When we realized that it was a pandemic, the safety procedures fell into place rather quickly,” Dischinger said.
They installed plexiglass shields around the checkout counters, began scheduled wipe-down procedures for shopping carts and other surfaces, placed spacing requirements throughout the building and limited the number of people that could enter the store at once. His employer also adjusted the hours to allow a reserved time for elderly and high-risk shoppers.
After the initial rush for toilet paper and sanitizers last spring, Dischinger noticed a lull in foot traffic through the store.
“It became apparent that people were doing a pretty good job of monitoring their own safety and spacing themselves out,” Dischinger said.
Online services picked up considerably. Instead of shopping in store, many customers opted to order online and pick-up groceries curbside. The store also had to adjust inventory to keep up with the high demand on emergency products, cleaners and shelf stable items such as pasta and rice.
By its nature, being an essential worker increased the employees’ potential risk of contracting COVID.
“There were a few people who came into the store coughing, obviously in respiratory distress, and there were certainly concerns that disease may be more impactful on their lives than those in other circumstances,” Dischinger said.
While these encounters caused some trepidation, Dischinger said that his co-workers seemed to take it all in stride.
“They kept fairly calm in their approach to it,” he said.
Daisy Anderson of Lakeside Covenant is a first responder in Chanhassen, MN. Local fire departments continually provide EMT and first responder training. When the pandemic hit, there was a large shift in how this training was done.
“We had to do a lot of online learning or have small groups train more often,” Anderson said. “[The Chanhassen Department] has turned more to paid on call. It’s starting to shift towards someday being a full-time department but it’s not yet.”
In the past, when a page went out, any number of volunteers who were able to respond would arrive at the station. Because of COVID, they changed to shift work to minimize the amount of people in the building at one time.
“Now we have three person shifts just so we wouldn’t have pages where 40-some people show up,” she said.
The department installed touch free devices and instituted cleaning procedures that each shift helps carry out.
The pandemic also changed how the department responds to calls.
“We always wear protective equipment, but we’ve gotten a lot more strict on how much we wear on which kinds of calls,” Anderson said.
If someone calls 911 for difficulty breathing, dispatch does a quick screening and lets the first responders know if COVID might be a factor.
“At that point, we just prepare assuming it’s COVID. We wear a gown, face shield, mask and gloves—a lot of extra stuff we didn’t necessarily do before,” she said.
Since the pandemic began, Anderson has noticed a couple notable trends in their community. First, car accidents have significantly decreased.
“So many people are working from home that there simply aren’t as many people driving around as before and so we have not seen as many accidents,” Anderson said.
Second, there was an uptick in small residential fires related to ovens or stovetops.
“Most of these calls were a result of having more kids at home trying to cook for themselves,” she explained.
For the most part, though, Anderson says that morale is good at the department.
“It’s our job and what we like to do, and [everyone] seems to be doing okay,” she said.
Gordon Swanson of First Covenant Church in St. Paul is a funeral director at Wulff Funeral Home. Swanson notes that the pandemic has impacted how and when people mourn.
“A good many of us went into this industry to serve people and we’re doing it in a much different way than we had before the pandemic,” Swanson said.
For those arranging and helping with funeral services, they have learned a whole new set of technical skills. They have adapted to state and CDC mandates of social distancing for in-person ceremonies as well as adhered to various church’s guidelines.
“Quite often when we hold a funeral at a church, it’s the first time they’ve had any kind of service in that building since the pandemic started. Their protocols in place are new and haven’t been worked out in its entirety,” he said.
Because of state restrictions, many families have decided to delay or not have funeral services at all in this past year.
“Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, we had families who postponed services until a later date thinking it was going to be a short-term situation. Now, a year into it, they decided not to have any ceremonies at all because they have moved on,” Swanson said. “To go back a year and revisit the loss is no longer something they need or desire to do.”
While funeral services look different right now, Swanson urges churches to continue reaching out to their grieving families.
“The loss is real and still immediate,” he said.
Contact the family with a phone call or send a sympathy card, pray for them and offer provisions and meals. These small gestures express love and help in the grieving process.
“People can do this in new and innovative ways, while some of the old traditions are still valid,” Swanson said.
Naming the Sacrifice
A common thread runs through each career. Regardless of where people work or what they do, everyone benefits from a word of encouragement and show of gratitude. Thankfully, difficult circumstances often inspire the community to show appreciation to first responders.
“Quite often, in times like this, the community encourages us with letters from kids or baked goods—things that show our department that people notice we are working hard to protect them,” Anderson said.
Churches can make a huge impact by recognizing those lesser-known or overlooked front-line workers.
Teachers serving in the classroom come alongside families and help them thrive.
“Being seen and known for that names the sacrifice,” Hoffner said.
Likewise, the service industry allows the minutiae of everyday life to continue.
“A number of times, people who came in the store would show appreciation for the work that was being done and say thanks,” Dischinger said. “The recognition of the fact that people working [at the grocery store] help supply the needs of the community really encourages people.”
It can also be as simple as recognizing and acknowledging a person’s role in the community.
“Noticing the sacrifice and the courage in which they’re doing it means a lot to people,” Hoffner said.
Story By Katie Honnette, freelance writer and member of Trimont Covenant Church.