This week, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute launched a series called “Education & Equity in a Post COVID-19 Society” with a virtual briefing that included a congressman, a scholar and two labor leaders. Months into the pandemic, they met in the now perfunctory Zoom session to discuss “the role, nature and needs of the teaching profession.” It seemed like business as usual in the nation’s Capital.
Yet a sense of urgency drove the conversation. AFT President Randi Weingarten participated from her New York City living room with a call to action emblazoned on her black t-shirt – “Repair the World” – translated from the Hebrew phrase, “Tikkun olam.”
Weingarten laid out the challenges: “We have a health pandemic and economic insecurity, the likes of which we have not seen since the Depression, and a long-term justice crisis made real and raw. All three of these crises disproportionately affect people who are poor and people of color. And the through line of the three crises is inequality.”
Weingarten called for “a huge agenda” with the federal HEROES Act at its center; that bill, Weingarten said, “takes a tourniquet to the bleeding right now.”
U.S. Congressman Raúl Grijalva, Arizona District 3, said he sees public education as an anchor in the response. “As we convulse with outrage at murder, this ugliness demands a systemic response…. We look at our public school system as a source of support, talent and advancement and doing right,” he said.
For a “thread of hope,” Congressman Grijalva pointed to the ongoing work of teachers and support staff during school closures. “I hope that America sees that these essential workers do more than teach, and how they continue to care for their students.” He added, “How we strengthen public education will be part of solution.”
National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García reported on the bleak findings of a survey conducted by the NEA in the first few weeks of the pandemic. In affluent, majority white schools, she said, her members were able to offer somewhat positive reports. Many said: “This is really hard to do– but I am getting by.”
Utterly different, she said, were the reports from poor districts of Black and Latino students. “I can’t find my students,” educators said. “They’re lost. There’s no phone number, or a mom won’t answer because she doesn’t speak English or they don’t recognize my number. And they have no internet. So I am in my car, delivering packets to the doorstep.”
Educators also found that districts had cancelled the translation services that facilitate conversations between teachers and Spanish-speaking parents.
“Randi,” García said, “I am going to use your term. We have to ‘stop the bleeding’. We are bleeding right now, and they are talking about 25 or 30 percent cuts in education… I think they will open those schools, and they won’t be safe.”
Marco Davis, moderator and CHCI president, turned to Weingarten, saying, “People are acutely concerned about what’s going to happen in the fall. Randi, what are the ways that teachers and communities can work together? You have a plan.”
“It’s 22 pages and it’s on aft.org,” [https://www.aft.org/reopen-schools ] Weingarten responded. “We know that inequity precedes this last crisis,” Weingarten said. “And that these crises have exacerbated all the inequities. In our reopen plan, we try to do deal with learning gaps, the digital divide, food insecurity and the distress that everyone is experiencing.”
“It’s a hybrid plan,” she explained. “We are actually listening to public health folks and looking at the numbers that tell us what we should be doing. We need an infrastructure of testing, tracing and isolating for 14 days. You do those health things first to limit the virus as much as possible.”
AFT’s reopening plan also addresses the need for physical distancing, Weingarten added. This could include split bus routes, smaller class sizes, one-way hallways and of course, use of masks and temperature-taking as part of the larger efforts both to make schools safer, and close the gaps in access to resources and other services.
The plan also calls for parents and teachers to work together closely; and to address food insecurity and social/emotional needs along with instructional needs. “We will need more and more community schools with wrap around services, and they need to be fully funded.”
Weingarten ended with a reality check: It will cost money – which makes the need for the Senate to take up its own version of the HEROES Act and invest in these essential services all the more critical. “Your budgets,” she said, “will tell you your priorities.”