Introductory note: Our students need to be safe and stay safe in their schools and on their campuses this school year. The positive effects of in-person learning so all children can thrive are obvious. And schools’ and colleges’ greatest responsibility is protecting the lives of students and staff. This is why the AFT invested $5 million to award 75 grants covering more than 1,800 AFT affiliates; these grants are engaging communities with 20 million students across the country to rebuild trust with parents and our communities, and most importantly, to get our kids back in schools safely.
The AFT’s Return, Recover and Reimagine grants are part of our Back to School for All campaign, which is championing a return to five-days-a-week, bricks-and-mortar instruction after 18 months of unprecedented turmoil and the recent troubling surge in the delta variant. The grants are fueling efforts to reopen schools for in-person learning in a way that maximizes the health and safety of students and prevents the spread of COVID-19 in the community. That includes supporting vaccinating children—the best way to protect them. It also includes advocating for staff and resources to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of our kids.
In New Jersey, promoting vaccines, literacy and a safe welcome-back to school
For AFT-New Jersey President Donna M. Chiera, her union’s back-to-school vaccination and literacy campaign (funded by a Return, Recover and Reimagine grant from the national AFT) is especially meaningful because it’s happening on dear and familiar ground. Chiera is a retired Perth Amboy teacher with 30-plus years in the classroom. On Aug. 11, she and Perth Amboy Federation President Patricia Paradiso distributed books to grown-ups and kids alike who received a COVID-19 vaccination that day at the Raritan Bay Area YMCA.
“It was great to be part of promoting vaccinations and literacy in the same district where I spent my teaching career,” says Chiera. “Seeing children and young adults asking if they can take more than one book home made me appreciate the success of local educators in nurturing the love of reading and learning.”
Among the books chosen by kids and parents were Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper. The event was one of an ongoing series in which the Perth Amboy local teamed up with the Raritan Bay Area YMCA and the Visiting Nurse Association. On Wednesday afternoons in August, the partnership offered music, free ice cream, vaccinations and a food bank, all at the Y.
“The Perth Amboy Federation is proud to be a part of the city's effort to get community members—particularly our students—vaccinated,” says Paradiso. “It has been a full-court press from the city and its various community agencies. I am grateful to the AFT for providing the grant money to purchase books so we can be a part of the effort. I have been a teacher in Perth Amboy for 23 years, and the city's children are near and dear to my heart.”
Encouraging families and eligible students to get vaccinated can involve challenges that go straight to the inequities in American society.
Chiera notes: “Perth Amboy is a district with an approximately 92 percent Latino population. So, language has always been a barrier, even with translation into Spanish.” She adds, “Many of the parents are concerned about immigration status. Even though the message from Gov. Murphy on down has been that immigration status doesn’t matter, our parents are concerned they are filling out a form with personal information that will be put in a database somewhere, and they don’t know who will have access to the information. They realize that this governor may be supportive, but they are concerned that future leaders may not be.”
But Chiera is hopeful that the vaccination effort “is making a difference, one person at a time.” Week by week, families are overcoming obstacles and getting the jabs that can prevent a life-threatening or life-altering disease. Chiera estimates that between 15 and 30 vaccinations have been administered at each event. According to Rebecca Pauley, the Raritan Bay Area YMCA community health coordinator, more than 30 people were vaccinated during the Aug. 11 event.
Now other community organizations are reaching out, asking the union to be part of their vaccination drives. The Perth Amboy Federation recently participated in a vaccination event outside a pediatricians’ clinic in downtown Perth Amboy. The local was also invited to an Aug. 28 event sponsored by the city of Perth Amboy and other partners that offered vaccinations plus a free backpack of school supplies for each student.
Time is of the essence—something that AFT local unions have known since the beginning of the pandemic and that has spurred them to lead when other decision-makers went more slowly. As Chiera observes, “The Perth Amboy board of education is looking to begin vaccinations at school sites in the fall, but that has not been finalized. At this point, the union is in the community promoting vaccinations, and the district is still in the planning stage.”