As the coronavirus migrates across boundaries and continents, the AFT continues to check in with educator unions around the globe through a series of webinars entitled “AFT International Connects: COVID-19.” On Monday, April 27, leaders from teachers unions in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Honduras were joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten and AFT leaders from New York and Los Angeles.
The first-person reports held up a mirror not only to Latin America’s healthcare challenges, but also to unfolding political and economic strains from which the U.S. is not immune. An audience of 277 tuned in, including AFT and Education International members from four continents.
The videoconference also presented a unique opportunity for AFT members who live and teach in Latinx communities to hear about pandemic responses throughout the Western Hemisphere and to report on activities in the U.S. The session was conducted mostly in Spanish with simultaneous translation to English.
Roberto Trochez, president of the Honduran teachers union, Colegio Profesional Superación Magisterial Hondureño (COLPROSUMAH), described the dire impact of the coronavirus in all corners of Central and South America. “This pandemic is changing the world and our lives,” he said. “It is changing our notions of safety and the way we work. Now we must find opportunities to bring back employment in education… and also find ways to guarantee the life, safety and security of our children.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten set the tone. In these gatherings, she said, “we are learning from each other at a 30,000-foot level.” She summarized four issues that currently drive the AFT’s pandemic response:
- Support for the safety and wellbeing of AFT members in 3,500 locals and the communities they serve. In this effort, information and communication are paramount. One of the many ways to share information and resources is through the AFT coronavirus web page. Another is AFT’s weekly Tuesday night telephone town halls which have drawn in 20,000 to 50,000 AFT members nationwide. Guest speakers have included U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Congresswoman Donna Shalala and governors Whitmer (Michigan), Pritzker (Illinois), Lujan Grisham (New Mexico) and more;
- A laser-like focus on the healthcare workers and public employees who are safeguarding the rest of us. AFT has purchased personal protective equipment which it is distributing to its fast-growing healthcare sector members;
- Ongoing strategy on the nation’s current economic catastrophe and its impacts on AFT members. The AFT’s many actions include our broadly focused work with the U.S. Congress on trillion-dollar legislation; and, closer to home, our creation of a trauma benefit for AFT members;
- Plans to safeguard the coming election in November.
President Weingarten concluded with an offer to share the AFT’s new plan for reopening schools and the economy, saying, “Our solidarity does not stop at our countries’ borders.”
The first speaker on the videoconference from April 27 was Fátima da Silva, calling in from Brazil. She is the General Secretary of the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação, Brazil’s education workers union. Brazil now has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in South America, even as its extreme right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has declared that Brazilians “never catch anything.” Brazil’s public and private schools have been completely shut down by Brazil’s autonomous provincial leaders, da Silva reports, adding, “We are fighting two fights, the coronavirus and the government that doesn’t know what to do about it.”
Bolsonaro is pressuring Brazilians to “get back to normal” and his partisan supporters are obliging him. The result? More people are becoming infected, says da Silva.
Brazil’s public and private sectors are trying to provide forms of remote education, but digital gaps for many poor families and confusion about digital products in the marketplace are obstacles. Da Silva predicts that students will need a period of learning recovery when they get back to the classroom.
The Confederação continues to call for Bolsonaro’s removal. “Before this, we had serious economic and political conflicts in Brazil,” da Silva said. “Now the pandemic has aggravated everything.” President Weingarten interjected, “Our two countries are competing to find out which of our leaders, with their psychosis and narcissism, can be more callous and cruel. But while Trump and Bolsonaro are competing to be worse, we are looking for ways to create hope, and to fight not just the pandemic but also the forces of tyranny.” The AFT has joined in the international condemnation of Bolsonaro’s administration.
U.S. (LOS ANGELES)
Next to speak was Juan Ramirez, an AFT vice president and vice president of United Teachers of Los Angeles. He was frank. “We cannot compare online learning to being present in the classroom,” he said. However, UTLA is nevertheless working to fill the gap by providing professional development to teachers who are not highly skilled in technology.
Families, too, are struggling. While the school district has provided tablets to students, Ramirez said, this does not completely address the lack of technology in every household. “Online classes are a whole new experience for students, parents and teachers who have to learn how to use technology,” he said. The union is now working with parents as they struggle to help their kids, and the district has created TV programs to support remote learning. Meanwhile, 63 schools in the Los Angeles school district—the second largest district in the U.S.—are providing grab-and-go meals every day. There is also a mental health hotline.
While everyone is working very hard to serve the community, Ramirez sounded nostalgic when he reiterated, “Nothing can replace a classroom.” Noting the prevalence of charter schools in L.A., he warned against any push towards privatization. Zoom must not become a new “best practice,” he said. “We need one-on-one teaching in the classroom,” he said.
When the pandemic hit Chile, the country was already in the midst of a political crisis, reported president of the Colegio de Profesoras y Profesores de Chile, Mario Aguilar. But the unions were ready. Even with 14,000 infected, Aguilar says the government did not want to cancel classes. In response, “millions of Chileans went to the street to tell the government, ‘This is an economic, political and health crisis, all at once!’”
The union made a threat. “If you don’t close the schools, we will lock them down,” they said. The government finally conceded but set an early re-opening date. The union again protested. Aguilar explained: “It’s a social alliance, and we all raise our voices. We have the support of parents and citizens. We work with a union of physicians. And our surveys tell us 90 percent are opposed to going back to classes.” As a result of the union protest, the Chilean government agreed to delay re-opening until there was agreement on the conditions.
But the union was not done with negotiations. Teachers, while launching remote lessons, were dismayed by the absence of computers in their students’ homes. Again, they went to the public. “We started a protest to give classes on ‘Open TV’ and to complement our work with homework and guidelines,” Aguilar said. The response: “We now have an alternative ‘Open TV’ signal which goes to 100 percent of households.” Chile’s ‘Open TV’ offers two hours of education every day, available to all.
U.S. (NEW YORK CITY)
Philippe Abraham, an AFT vice president and Secretary-Treasurer of the New York State United Teachers, offered a now-familiar portrait of a school district in distress: children without their accustomed access to meals as well as a “big divide” between families who can afford technology with an internet connection, and those who cannot. Even with donated tablets, many children do not have a connection to the internet at home, according to Abraham. “The pandemic has cast a very bright light on the inequities that exist for our parents and students,” he said.
Argentina was already struggling economically when the pandemic hit, said Sonia Alesso, General Secretary of the Confederaciòn de Trabajadores de la Educaciòn de la Repùblica Argentina. “So, it’s important to note that unlike other Latin American countries” she said, “our government has coordinated with the unions. And this is great.”
Teachers from kindergarten through university are using the internet and ‘Open TV’ to teach, she said, “and they’ve been assured they will keep their jobs and be paid.” While some students in farming regions don’t have access to the internet, the union is working with the ministry to reach them. “Every measure is discussed with CTARA to reach the best solution,” she said.
“In the U.S., 55 million American students are currently not in school,” reported Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, senior director of AFT Educational Issues. Of concern to the AFT is “the digital divide.” That is, as many as 12 million students in low income families do not have access to the technology needed for distance learning. Also of concern are families with children and adults competing for one computer.
Our greatest worry, she said, is that students in low income households, students who have special needs, English learners and/or students who require assisted devices or full-time aides will be further disadvantaged by this extended period of remote learning. “These needs don’t lend themselves to distance learning,” she added. “The equity gap will grow.”
The AFT has found some solutions: our paraprofessionals are calling students at home to check in on their general well-being and working one-on-one with them to understand assignments. School buses are delivering homework packets; these buses also deliver meals and serve as wi-fi hotspots for neighborhoods. Public and some private television stations are also stepping in.
While internet providers and tech companies are helping by providing cheaper data plans, for example, Ucelli-Kashyap said the AFT plans to ask them publicly to do more. President Weingarten is also calling for additional federal funds for voluntary multi-week summer school programs to help those students most harmed by closures; they need both care, enrichment and academic programs.
“But there’s one immediate bright spot,” said Ucelli-Kashyap: The U.S. Department of Education has allowed states to waive standardized tests for the year. Also, most districts have switched to “Pass” and “No Pass” grading, based on the first three quarters of the year. “This has removed a little bit of the pressure on our heroic educators as they face the challenge of remote teaching,” she said.
Roberto Trochez, COLPROSUMAH president, reports that Honduras had an education crisis even before the pandemic hit. “In Honduras, 68 percent live in poverty,” he said. “And 48 percent are in extreme poverty.” Now, with schools closed, just 53 percent of students are receiving classes remotely as 26,000 teachers have joined the ranks of the unemployed. “Generally speaking,” he said, “50 percent of children have nothing to eat because their parents are laid off. The kids have no way to feed themselves.”
The root of the problem, Trochez said, is the country’s lingering international debt. “Forty-eight percent of the budget goes to pay that debt,” he said. “Health and education systems have been put aside.”
Honduras has almost no capacity for coronavirus testing. Only 661 cases have been diagnosed, Trochez reported, “so lots of people are walking around, transmitting disease. Going back to school isn’t possible.” Still, he added, “as a union, we are trying to guarantee that the school year won’t close and that teachers will receive their wages.” The union is also asking two mobile companies to provide free internet so that states can provide smart devices to rural students.
With an eye toward returning to the classroom, the union is also asking the government to hire more teachers: “A classroom with 50-60 students creates an impossible situation for transmission. More teachers will help us prevent that.”
Trochez closed with an observation and an appeal. “We are an emerging country, one of the poorest,” he said. “Our children need books. Our parents, especially in this pandemic, need help. We need your support.”
And with a more international focus, he concluded, “Teachers are irreplaceable. We need them. We are defending public education, and we need to keep moving forward. This is the time to begin a conversation on change.”
Another “AFT International Connects: COVID-19” is in the planning stage; it will feature a conversation with union leaders in Norway, Sweden and Germany.