K-12 locals put safety first, find communities on their side
The week after Thanksgiving, Mariah Fisher, president of the Novato Federation of Teachers and a middle school drama teacher, said she was ready to go back to in-person teaching, starting that week. She had marked off six feet of space between all the desks and she was preparing to teach acting to students wearing masks.
But Fisher, who had been getting a COVID-19 test every two weeks, realized she would no longer be able to do so — right when she would be around students, teachers, and staff and most in need of one. The testing site is only open once a week till 3 o’clock and she teaches till 2:45.
Fisher says she’s been hearing from other teachers with similar concerns about getting tested who also don’t know how to get a substitute if they need to miss class.
“I’ve been emailing the head of HR about it,” she said. “We can’t mandate or require people to get tested, but we’ve been encouraging them to do it every two weeks. Now we’re not as flexible and people can’t squeeze it in. I’ve been working on it as far as I’m in the loop.”
At Poway in San Diego County, schools have been open since October even though the district has, at times, been in the purple zone, the most restrictive. Kelly Logan, president of Poway Federation of Teachers, Local 2357, says there are four testing sites in the county exclusively for school employees, but the closest one is about a 20-minute drive.
Logan says she’s heard from teachers who worry that they’ve been exposed because they have a positive case in their classroom. She has been working with district officials to increase information sharing, so she can keep members informed and promote confidence in the system.
“I’m working with the district to figure out the exact protocols,” Logan said. “We’re looking at making a video to better share the process. The district is now texting me at the end of each week with information on positive cases.”
Both Logan and Fisher say that they’re not hearing much from their members about vaccines, which are tentatively expected to be available by summer or possibly spring.
Nelly Vaquera-Boggs, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, Local 1936, says some members don’t want to go back on campus until there is a vaccine, but currently it’s not a big part of the discussion. For now, she says, the union has negotiated with the district to reach a start date of March 1, but that could change depending on the numbers.
At this time, there are no students or teachers on campus except for a few in the special education program and those without internet access at home. These small groups will continue working on campus but teachers maintain the ability to work from the safety of their homes. Teachers and students are getting more comfortable with distance learning, and Vaquera-Boggs says they are working on issues of equity and students’ emotional well-being as well as making sure they meet academic standards.
“We’re staying focused on doing our best to save people’s lives, and students are still our number one priority,” she said. “Teachers are working very hard to ensure students’ needs are being met.”
Vaquera-Boggs, Fisher and Logan all say a bright spot in the middle of trying to teach and stay safe in this pandemic is the Friday happy hours the EC/TK-12 Council has been hosting. They agree that getting together to hear success stories, a budget update, or getting validation from their colleagues across the state means a lot.
“It’s really helpful,” said Logan, who also sent some nurses from Poway to participate in a CFT task force on vaccines. “It can be pretty incredibly stressful right now, and it’s nice to share.”
Vaquera- Boggs agrees. She says after hearing about a union doing a Wellness Wednesday to address how exhausted their members were, they decided to do something along those lines.
“We started a Mindfulness Monday with a mindfulness coach coming for half an hour before we start work, so we start our week in a positive manner,” she said. “This has been a hard year for everybody with being isolated and having to learn a new way to provide a service. Just knowing you’re not alone is one of the positives.
Tanya Golden, secretary of the EC/TK-12 Council as well as executive vice president of ABC Federation of Teachers, Local 2317, calls the weekly meetings critical.
“Most local presidents are out there by themselves and the landscape changed overnight as to how we teach,” Golden said. “Sometimes we sit there and laugh and everyone decompresses, and other times it’s down to business. It’s a combination — we read the room. They are both very helpful to be able to do.”
Golden says she and Ray Gaer, the ABC president, used to regularly visit sites to check in with members, and when COVID hit, they knew they needed to do something different to get information to people as well as build community.
Golden says the union is still planning to negotiate COVID testing with the district. Earlier in the fall, the target date for going back to in-person instruction was January, but now that’s been moved back to March. For now, that’s OK, she says.
“We did do a survey and 70 percent of the parents are highly satisfied,” she said. “So far the community is on our side and we’re aware of that and trying to keep doing our jobs.”
Chartered in 1998, the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers Retired Chapter was formed to promote the interests and welfare of retired faculty of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District (N-MUSD) as well as to support the active members of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers (N-MFT) Local 1794. N-MFT Retired provides a communications link to keep retirees informed and to offer a means to exchange ideas and mobilize around issues that contribute to the well-being of both retired and active members of Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers. A liaison is maintained with N-MFT and with the community at large. N-MFT Retired members are represented by both the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as lifetime members. N-MFT retirees are also members of the California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA). In addition to our professional affiliations, N-MFT Retired has objectives to monitor and protect retiree health and pension benefits as well as to promote social and welfare interests of its members.
An Executive Board is elected by the membership at the beginning of the fiscal year, which begins in August with the Annual ‘Kickoff’ Meeting. In addition, at least three General Meetings are held each year in settings that promote both social and informational interaction. Communication is further maintained via an email list, U.S. mail, Chapter web page, and newsletters. The retired Chapter encourages retirees to participate in community service, offer professional resources, and discuss educational trends to foster general welfare.
March 13, 2021, marked a year of our experience of the Pandemic. Throughout this time you have endured many obstacles and experiences to get to this point of the year. You have gone through the reopening of schools process, experienced the summer covid surge, experienced the school board’s decisions of giving secondary students incompletes and distance learning. As workers, you have changed formats, platforms, and curriculum. You have sheltered in place, reached out to families, consoled those who were grieving, and spoke out on behalf of your students. You did all of this because you care about your students, you care about your profession and you care about your community. During the reopening process, we have had legislation that forced us to do engagement logs, we have had safety guidelines that have changed on a regular basis, we have had varying safety enforcement within the cities where we worked and reside. Not only was our local standards shifting from numbers to colors, to hospitalization rates, our national landscape was also changing with the varying standards daily. While all of this was occurring, Elementary came back to school on September 29, 2020, for a half-day hybrid model. We were uncertain if all of the HVAC filters would be upgraded on time or if any of the safety measures would be in place. By the time Secondary came back for their full-day hybrid, much of the HVAC was in place, and the Air Purifiers were added to our classrooms. The HVAC system stretched to its limits not only due to Covid but with the fires that affected the air quality in our area. This is where we saw the unity within our union thrive.
You as caring individuals helped those colleagues who needed shelter during the fires. You covered and helped those colleagues who had to evacuate from their homes. During this entire crisis, our certificated colleagues have stood up for each other and housed one another. We had a record number of people on medical and personal leave during the covid crisis. Many needed to preserve the health of their loved ones and themselves. Many of you during the deadliest surge of the pandemic had to quarantine themselves due to exposure either at home or at school. In January, when we had the deadliest surges in US history, you worked as hard as you could to avoid students learning loss. During this time, secondary schools had to go into distance learning because the number of positive cases on campus affected the essential operations of the schools. Elementary, who experienced their highest numbers of positive covid cases in students, were able to operationally function while observing the steadily rising rates of infection. As we come from the epic surges from that time, the state and national standards for safety and children change yet again to allow us to go into a 100% model for elementary and an increased instructional model for secondary. Throughout every mountain and obstacle, there is one thing that is constant… YOU. YOU are the ones who have prevailed during this crisis. YOU are the ones that have educated these students no matter the obstacle. YOU are the ones who managed to stay healthy during a time when it is a challenge. YOU are the ones who have always put the community and students first in spite of your own personal safety. It is YOUR passion that is bringing us out of this pandemic and it is your strength that has prevailed this entire time. Thank you for persevering through the mountains that were laid before us. Thank you for keeping calm and professional on behalf of your students when society and the community may have been critical.
Thank you for keeping yourself healthy throughout this pandemic and maintaining a standard for safety for our students. Thank you for helping one another. Thank you for helping your colleagues during fires. Thank you for helping colleagues when they had safety issues in their classrooms. Thank you for helping those colleagues at your school site who were on leave. Thank you for helping those RTI and Substitute teachers who had to take over for them. Thank you for supporting and speaking up for those colleagues who have had a loss in their families. Thank you for honoring those colleagues with whom we have lost. Thank you for showing unity in the midst of a crisis. As we reflect on the many obstacles we have overcome this year, all I can say is “Well Done”. You have shown the strength, fortitude, and drive that many should look up to. Even Through the toughest of moments you did your work and have done it well. Anyone working with you should be proud of what you have accomplished. You are the best group of certificated employees that I have ever had the pleasure to work with. As we come from spring break to welcome yet another change in format, please know that in spite of the newest mountains. You have and will always achieve because the drive and the magnificence are innate in you. Thank you for your service to our children, our community, and our district.
AFT President Randi Weingarten today delivered a major address on the crisis hollowing out the teaching profession—massive disinvestment in public education and deprofessionalization. In her speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., she called for reinvestment and freedom to teach. It was followed by two panels featuring education leaders who laid out pragmatic solutions.
To start, Weingarten asked that Americans consider the motivations educators express about why they teach, such as “I teach because I want to change the world, one child at a time, and to show them to have passion and wonder in their learning.” Teachers understand the importance of their work, she said, as do parents and the public. But the disrespect of certain policymakers has taken a toll.
School employees are leaving the profession at the highest rate on record. Last year, schools employed 110,000 fewer teachers than were needed, almost doubling the shortage of 2015. The crisis has hit all 50 states, and it’s getting worse.
Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting—dropping 38 percent nationally between 2008 and 2015. More than 100,000 classrooms across the country have an instructor who is not credentialed.
“How many operating rooms do you think are staffed by people without the necessary qualifications? Or airplane cockpits?” Weingarten asked. “We should be strengthening teacher preparation programs, not weakening teacher licensure requirements. Why are we doing this to our kids?”
Teaching has become so devalued that, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of parents say they don’t want their kids to become teachers.
This crisis has two major roots, Weingarten said: deep disinvestment from public education and the deprofessionalization of teaching.
Schools are starved for funds
On disinvestment, Weingarten noted that the public school uprisings of the past two years have laid bare the frustration over insufficient resources, deplorable facilities, and inadequate pay and benefits. Today, 25 states still spend less on public education than they did a decade ago. In 38 states, teacher salaries are lower than before the Great Recession. Teachers rose up in Colorado when officials tried to justify a four-day school week as “good” for kids. Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that teachers are paid 24 percent less than other college graduates. In addition to the soaring cost of healthcare, there is the burden of student loans.
And then there are the conditions in which students learn—especially the nation’s poorest children. Public school facilities got a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That includes rat infestations, toxic mold and freezing classrooms in winter. AFT member Corinne Lyons, who introduced Weingarten before her address, told how the water has been shut off in her Detroit school because of dangerously high levels of lead and other contaminants.
“Everything I just described to you is a disgrace,” Weingarten said. “Students know it’s a disgrace. Parents know it’s a disgrace. Administrators know it’s a disgrace. Teachers know it’s a disgrace.”
Treat us as professionals
On the deprofessionalization of teaching, educators say they are frustrated, demoralized and deeply stressed, Weingarten said. The lack of classroom autonomy and discretion supercharge that dissatisfaction. She instructed doubters to Google “teachers’ resignation letters” to find anguished accounts of the ways teachers have been stripped of their freedom to teach in the ways they judge best.
Deprofessionalization, she said, is killing the soul of teaching.
This lack of respect takes many forms. It’s being micromanaged—told that the only decorations allowed in your classroom are motivational posters provided by a textbook publisher. It’s getting in trouble for allowing students to conduct a science experiment or continue a debate over two days, instead of one. It’s the continued fixation on standardized testing.
Just as the testing obsession makes teachers’ hair stand on end, so does excessive paperwork—data collection, data entry, data reporting. One member summed it up this way: “Teachers are drowning in a sea of paperwork; just let us do our jobs.”
More than 30 years ago, Weingarten said, two powerful ideas that advance teacher professionalism came from the AFT. Former President Al Shanker introduced the idea for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The concept of improving practice through peer assistance and review also originated in our ranks.
And for almost a decade, Weingarten said, holding up a copy of the latest American Educator, participants in the AFT’s Teacher Leaders Program have turned their ideas into practice and their advocacy into policy.
None of this has been enough. The deprofessionalization we’re facing is not the case in high-achieving countries like Finland, Singapore and Canada, where teachers are rightly considered “nation builders,” and their pay, time for collaboration, and involvement in decision-making reflect that.
“It’s not rocket science to see that the United States has gone in the wrong direction and that we need to reverse course,” the AFT president said. “Teachers need the freedom to teach. If we want our public schools to be all we hope, if we want to attract and retain a new generation of wonderful teachers, this cannot be solely a teacher issue or a teacher union issue. We must act, and we must act together.”
What we will do about it
Solving this crisis requires treating teachers as the professionals they are, Weingarten said. So the question is how to elevate teachers’ voice and judgment, and allow them to make learning rich and fulfilling.
There are ways we can legislate and negotiate, she added, starting by focusing on three essential areas:
1. Developing a culture of collaboration, which requires trust and leadership. She cited the ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County, the Meriden, Conn., public schools and New York City, with its new Bronx Plan.
2. Creating and maintaining proper teaching and learning conditions. For teachers, this starts with a simple question: What do I need to do my job so that my students have what they need?
3. Ensuring teachers have real voice and agency befitting their profession. Too often, Weingarten said, educators essentially are told to check their ideas, imagination and initiative at the schoolhouse door. “The further away from the classroom, the more authority someone seems to have over teachers’ work,” she added. “That makes no sense.”
To develop a culture of collaboration, she said, we must:
Build more teacher time into school schedules, in addition to individual prep periods, to observe colleagues’ lessons, look at student work and plan collaboratively.
Trust teachers. Develop policies—from the school board to the principal’s office—with teachers, not to teachers.
To create and maintain proper teaching and learning conditions, we must:
Ask teachers what they need to do their jobs so their students succeed, use their answers as the basis of an audit of teaching and learning conditions, and then integrate the results into assessments of the district. Ask principals, parents and students as well.
Act on those audit results—through legislation, lobbying, collective bargaining and, if necessary, school finance lawsuits.
To empower real teacher voice and agency and the freedom to teach, we must:
Give educators the latitude, when they are asked—or told—to do something, to ask two fundamental questions: What is the purpose of what I am being told to do? And how does that contribute to teaching and learning?
Respect teachers by giving them the latitude to raise concerns and act in the best interests of their students without fear of retaliation, as New York City’s United Federation of Teachers negotiated in its latest contract.
America should be unleashing teachers’ talents, not stifling them, she said: “Educators need the benefit of the doubt.”
The problem comes down to who controls the decisions affecting teaching and learning. Here’s a telling example: Thousands of teachers rely on crowdfunding sites like Donors Choose to obtain educational games, classroom libraries and basic supplies. But some, like the Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, are forbidding teachers from using Donors Choose because officials are upset that they don’t control what the donations are spent on.
At a telephone town hall with hundreds of members and leaders on the night before her speech, Weingarten embraced a member’s equation of the “freedom to teach” with the “freedom to care” in nursing. This translates into having the time to directly care for patients instead of charting. Weingarten noted that such respect for professionalism extends to our members in every profession. The assumption should be that teachers, like other professionals, know what they are doing.
Change is possible. Weingarten vowed that the AFT will commit everything it’s got—the resources and influence of 1.7 million members—to combat disinvestment, deprofessionalization and disrespect.
“Teachers are drawn to this profession because of their love for children and their passion for teaching,” she said. “Let’s reignite that passion, not extinguish it. So, to America’s teachers, my heroes, I say: Keep fighting. And keep caring. You are making a difference.”
Panels: Trust, collaboration, voice
Two panel discussions followed the speech. Ray Gaer, president of the ABC Federation of Teachers, struck the top note in calling for collaboration. Mary Sieu, ABC’s superintendent, spoke of including all stakeholders, including classified personnel, social workers and nurses, in finding student success. Over 20 years, ABC educators working in partnership raised reading achievement at six schools from “abysmal” to award-winning.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew agreed that what works is “true trust, collaboration and voice.” New York City’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, compared school leadership with a romantic partnership: “Exert your dominance and see how long that’s going to last.”
Instead, Mulgrew and Carranza asked each other: What drove you crazy as a teacher? Each had dozens of peeves, which they have decided to address through an initiative called the Bronx Plan that extends to other neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Far Rockaway. At each school, the principal and union leader both agree to collaborate. “Let’s just own the fact that these schools have been neglected for decades,” Mulgrew said. Yet, as if by magic, underachieving schools with the most mutual respect are rising to the top.
Erin Benham, president of the Meriden (Conn.) Federation of Teachers, described overcoming budget constraints by using a weekly extended day to add to teachers’ planning time and giving them the autonomy to decide what to do with that time.
“When educators are all working together in a position of trust,” Mulgrew said, “that’s when you can achieve the dream we have for kids.”
The second panel brought together policymakers who, in Weingarten’s words, see change from “different vantage points.”
Howie Morales, lieutenant governor of New Mexico, described the education “moonshot” his state is attempting under a new, education-friendly governor. “It’s not where you’re at,” he said, “it’s where you’re going.”
Arkansas state Sen. Joyce Elliott suggested finding whoever in your state legislature belongs to the National Conference of State Legislatures and working with them on education issues. “Everybody has something good to contribute,” she said. “You have to take on the burden. You can’t just sit back and say it’s not fair, because in the end, what it’s not fair for is our children.”
Betty Rosa, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, used collaboration at the state level to clean up the toxic environment that came with overtesting. She, too, credited finding common ground with unlikely allies.
This week is parent conference week for our elementary schools. It’s an opportunity for teachers to discuss student achievement, academic supports, and hold strategic and focused conversations about each child. Throughout this year, teachers had to dispel misinformation, stop rumors, and remind parents we are in fact conducting In-Person Instruction, unlike many Districts in the news that have not re-opened for live instruction. Our teachers were looking forward to having conversations with parents centered on what students are being taught and student progress NOT the politics of distance learning vs in-person instruction.
This opportunity was hijacked yesterday.
At 4:47 PM NMUSD sent out an email that shifted the course of our parent conferences away from the students, to politics. This communication from the Superintendent informed parents that the District is currently considering increasing in-person instruction at our Elementary Schools. Teachers were bombarded with questions and emails about what increased instruction would look like. There were questions about social distancing, lunch, recess, and other activities involving student groups and shared materials. Parents were also concerned about adjustments that they would have to make with their employers related to “drop off” and “pick up” times. Clearly, teachers were caught off guard and were unable to give meaningful responses to parents, as they had only received the same message moments before. Some teachers were informed of the Superintendent’s message during their evening conferences.
NMUSD, you have placed a great amount of stress on your employees. You have robbed them of the opportunity to have student-focused conversations. You have forced our principals to scramble to do damage control knowing a plan has not been developed as of yet. You have forgotten the sacrifices that all of our employees have made in order to teach during some of the scariest and deadliest surges. You did this to save face at the expense of your employees.
Your employees deserve better than this. We deserve an employer who actually creates plans before announcing them to the public. We deserve an employer who looks at all of the logistical and operational details to make our work systematically happen. We deserve an employer who provides us with details prior to making announcements to the public. We deserve an employer who values our rapport with parents and trusts us enough to communicate the PLAN!
Patience—counseled by former Vice President Joe Biden all election week as Americans waited for votes to be counted—finally paid off Nov. 7, four days after Election Day, when he won in Pennsylvania and gained enough Electoral College votes to acquire a new title: president-elect.
The win in Pennsylvania, and just a few hours later in Nevada, meant that Biden and running mate Kamala Harris had defeated President Donald Trump. In an election that posted the highest voter turnout in decades, Biden and Harris collected more votes than any presidential ticket in U.S. history.
This was the news that AFT members across the country had been waiting to hear as tens of millions of mail and absentee ballots were being counted. AFT President Randi Weingarten captured the relief they felt, saying: “Biden and Kamala have vowed to repair our country’s deep pain and division and will govern tirelessly for all of us. Today, America resumes the hard work of creating a more perfect union that helps everyone thrive, led by an effective, ethical and empathetic administration elected by more voters than any ticket in history.”Weingarten congratulated Biden and Harris, saying that AFT members look forward to their leadership and to working “with an administration that will embrace and fight for the values we hold dear.”
On Inauguration Day in January, Biden will become the nation’s 46th president, and Harris will be the first woman and the first Black person and Asian American to serve as vice president.
In a victory speech Nov. 7 in Wilmington, Del., Biden said he will set a new tone in Washington. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify,” he promised.
And in praising the next first lady, Jill Biden, the president-elect took special note of her connection and commitment to education. She is a community college teacher and “has dedicated her life to education,” he pointed out. “For America’s educators,” President-elect Biden said, “this is a great day. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
Weingarten says she and other AFT leaders and members across the country “can’t wait to get started” on the work needed to overcome the multiple crises confronting America.
“Joe Biden is a person of great decency, strength, knowledge and compassion. He will deliver on his promise to make things better for those who struggle and strive, those who educate our children and care for our patients and our communities,” Weingarten says. “He and Kamala will confront America’s crises and fight for the promise of a better future.”
Biden said in his speech that on Nov. 9 he would name a task force of leading scientists and other experts to convert his plan for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic into a detailed action blueprint ready to be implemented when he takes office on Jan. 20.
“I will spare no effort—or commitment—to turn this pandemic around,” he said.
Boosted by record early voting during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, massive turnout meant that the election drew one of the highest percentages of eligible voters recorded over at least the last century. About 100 million Americans voted before Election Day—by mail, absentee or in person.
Just a week before the election, the AFT executive council adopted a resolution outlining the union’s commitment to American democracy and the requirement that every vote must be counted—even when the count takes more time than usual, as it did this year.
In the final days of the campaign, Biden and Harris said the election would give Americans the opportunity to make a new beginning for the nation.
“We’re done with the chaos. The corruption. The failure. The irresponsibility. The indifference to American lives. The indifference to Americans’ dignity,” Biden said in Pittsburgh the day before the election. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Not division and distraction, but the real work of healing this country.”
During a telephone town hall on the eve of Election Day, Weingarten said she had seen “the resilience of people” during her travels across the country to mobilize voters to defeat Trump. “People are exhausted by the chaos and the division. They want change,” she said.
AFT members began their involvement with the presidential election nearly two years ago, when the union launched a candidate endorsement process that culminated in July 2020 with the AFT formally endorsing Biden at the union’s national convention.
Making good on that commitment, AFT members across the nation mobilized support for the Biden-Harris ticket throughout the fall campaign.
The centerpiece of that effort was the AFT Votes cross-country bus tour. With Weingarten leading the way—joined at various points by AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram and Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus—the tour started in Los Angeles, crossed the mountains and the Great Plains, traveled across the Upper Midwest and down the Atlantic coast before finishing in Florida on Nov. 1, the Sunday before Election Day.
Along the way on the 33-day trip, the bus made stops in 14 states for get-out-the-vote rallies and other events aimed at local issues and candidates supported by AFT affiliates.
In her September New York Times column, AFT President Randi Weingarten says that going back to school has never looked like it does now. Weingarten explains that because of President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus, which has been chaotic, contradictory and inept, and the lack of federal guidance and funding, we’re seeing a patchwork of school reopening plans across the country. “Teachers are working harder than ever to make both remote and in-person teaching and learning effective, engaging and equitable,” Weingarten writes. “We know that in-person learning and interactions are best for students, so we’ll keep fighting for the resources and health protocols necessary to return to school as quickly and safely as possible.”
Trump’s response to the coronavirus has been chaotic, contradictory and inept. Without federal guidance or funding, we’ve seen a patchwork of school reopening plans. Teachers unions throughout the country have reached creative and innovate agreements to meet the instructional and safety challenges. But in Florida, Georgia, Indiana and elsewhere, many schools had to close days after they reopened, after outbreaks of COVID-19. Now, like nursing homes and meatpacking plants early in the pandemic, college campuses are COVID-19 hotspots.
Trump has failed us. He lied about the coronavirus instead of working to contain it. He politicized the wearing of lifesaving masks. He said kids don’t get COVID-19, and that it would disappear. He admits that he deliberately downplayed its risks to prevent “panic.” Now, because he and DeVos have done nothing to plan and provide resources to reopen schools safely, many families are, indeed, panicking. Kids not being in school is hard for everyone. But it is a crisis for many families—for essential workers and others who can’t stay home, children with disabilities, vulnerable families and those without the necessary technology. The only guidance DeVos has issued for this year is to mandate standardized high-stakes tests. How is it that kids’ and teachers’ health is dispensable, but high-stakes testing is not?
Despite this chaos and disruption, parents and educators view going back to school similarly. The AFT, the NAACP, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the League of United Latin American Citizens commissioned a new poll that found majorities of both parents and teachers believe protecting the health of students and staff should be the primary factor in weighing whether, how and when schools should open their doors for in-person instruction. Majorities of both parents and teachers are not comfortable starting the school year in-person, and they worry that their districts will reopen schools too quickly, risking the safety of students, families and school staff. But when safety precautions such as masks, hand washing, daily deep cleaning, physical distancing and proper ventilation, and the funding to do all this, are in place—which the AFT has been fighting for since April—71 percent of parents and 79 percent of teachers are comfortable returning to school.
Those precautions are not in place in many schools. In Florida, the governor ordered all schools to reopen for in-person instruction, even as coronavirus hotspots flare in the state and infections among school-age children have jumped 34 percent. In response, the AFT and the Florida Education Association sued to allow remote instruction until community transmission is lowered and health and safety provisions are in place. In Texas, state officials are reporting coronavirus infections only at the district level, often with delays; to address this, the Texas AFT launched an online tool so teachers and others can track confirmed cases at individual school sites.
The AFT and our affiliates have been working to reopen schools safely since they closed last March. The AFT released our initial “Plan to Safely Reopen Schools” in April and updated guidance in August. The United Federation of Teachers, our New York City affiliate, engaged independent medical and public health experts to develop a 50-item plan for the health and safety standards schools must meet before they open. And it negotiated a new reopening schedule to give additional time to ensure New York City schools are safe. The Boston Teachers Union just reached an agreement with the district that includes increased testing for school staff, independent air-quality tests in school buildings, more training on remote learning, and verification of health and safety measures before schools will be cleared to reopen. And we are working with Congress and telecommunications companies to connect more students and households—through internet service, computers, modems and Wi-Fi hotspots.
Teachers are working harder than ever to make both remote and in-person teaching and learning effective, engaging and equitable. We know that in-person learning and interactions are best for students, so we’ll keep fighting for the resources and health protocols necessary to return to school as quickly and safely as possible.
Having just attended the school board meeting, here are some of my thoughts.
The initial study sessions on reopening led to the presentation of the 40% and 50% hybrid models to the board in June. Contingent upon declining infection rates, both those plans seemed reasonable as they resonated with what I’ve learned about covid so far.
The board and many others wanted all kids in school every day; thus the new “hybrid”, including level 2 where all kids are on campus every day (minus those enrolled in virtual school), which isn’t really a hybrid in relation to how the term is being used at school districts across the country to describe reopening plans. It’s an important distinction because the hybrid models like the initial ones brought to the board by the District and it’s reopening committee were taking CDC recommendations into account in the practical sense; they inherently addressed space issues and allowed for effectively implemented social distancing. They lessened the amount of people on a school campus at one time, and made it feasible to clean, sterilize, and sanitize. Simply stated a hybrid model is a more cautious approach. It’s safer.
Everyone wants to keep everyone safe. And we are told we will only return when it’s safe. I am not questioning that. The board wants to keep us safe too.
No one saw this coming. The decisions being made now are either going to cause very few deaths, or an increased amount that could be avoided with more realistic and cautious planning.
No one, in any position, or on Any Board, USA is “prepared” for these decisions. Not only that, America right now is out of sorts; excessively divided. When compared to other nations we have not done as well preventing the spread of covid.
In my judgment, people are still not fully absorbing the seriousness of covid; and regular well-meaning people are still resistant to the full extent of the situation we’re in. Subjective as it may be, last night I did not sense or observe a reassuring level of gravity within the board’s discussions about and surrounding reopening. I heard one member say “unless the governor shuts things down, and if it gets a little better…” we want all the kids there (at school). To me it resembles a kind of pervasive denial pretty common lately, not an indication of a lack of wanting to do the right thing; nor a lack of wanting to keep everyone…safe.
I also heard a public comment that was compelling and seductively posed with a false equivalency. I know it resonates with many parents, and some teachers too. “When it comes to choosing between 30 kids and 1 teacher, I think it’s a pretty easy choice.” Most adults would jump in and save the life of a single child at their own risk in a heartbeat. If that were the actual trade-off. The implication of this comment and the false narrative it suggests belies what we’re up against in the community and in our nation. But if we reopen more wisely, we can prevent some illness and death AND eventually help children catch up. And we can do so in a relatively short period of time. The benefit for the child in this scenario, by the way, is living in a country where people care more about their fellow man, and work united together to spare one another from pandemic illness.
To be exceptional in our response to covid, and protect ourselves and our community, we must establish objective criteria for the safe reopening of school. It needs to be specific and according to CDC guidelines. If we do not step in and determine what science and communicable disease experts qualify as “safe”, defining it exactly, we run the risk of reopening at a time when, had we waited, some illness and death could have been prevented.
It’s not enough of an assurance that this concept was alluded to generally last night by two board members, and that the need for criteria to be formulated eventually was confirmed by Mr. Lee-Sung.
We need leadership and wisdom right now, that comes from inward and compensates for those that are doing their best but missing the mark where the most current scientific guidance needs to be placed.