Across the nation, educators and parents stood up on Sept. 2 to #DemandSafeSchools in a day of action campaign that stretched from small, one-person statements posted on social media to press conferences and events with elected officials that reached thousands.
More than 200 different events were registered on the campaign website; many more launched independently. And it wasn’t just the AFT and its members: More than 50 partner groups participated, including the Poor People’s Campaign, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, the National Council of Negro Women and the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Another two dozen actions, like town halls, round tables, convenings and virtual discussions with parents and community members, involved members of Congress who are advocates for public schools and are pressing for legislation that will fund safe reopening. From Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in San Francisco to Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who represents the Florida Keys, legislators are committed to protecting their communities.
Whether it was socially distanced demonstrations in front of schools, car caravans with posters imploring legislators to fund our schools, or Twitterstorms aimed at Senate leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is blocking the HEROES relief funding bill, all the actions lifted up the need to support our students and school staff. The actions not only called for plans for plenty of personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and technology for remote learning, but also demanded the resources to pay for it all.
Children should be our priority
“Every single parent in America, every single educator in America, is agonizing about what they do about schools right now,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten during a press conference with elected officials and union leaders in Philadelphia. “What you didn’t see—until Wall Street started to cycle downward—was any federal leadership. Why are children less of a priority than Wall Street? Why has the HEROES Act sat in the Senate for 100 days?”
Teachers at press conferences and panel discussions described families who are afraid to send children back to school for fear of bringing COVID-19 home to grandparents and other family members vulnerable to the virus. Others described children without sufficient internet access or computers to participate in remote learning. And there are scores of educators who are retiring early rather than risk their lives returning to an unsafe building.
“Living and learning shouldn't be pitted against each other,” said Weingarten, this time at a virtual discussion with the Broward Teachers Union in Florida. “But on a national level, we haven't put the needs of people first.”
In West Virginia, where leaders held a press conference with gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango, AFT-Fayette President Tega Toney said teachers are scared and anxious. Some have been preparing their classrooms for a week and still have no PPE; others have one mask, one set of gloves. “Schools have not really laid out concrete plans for social distancing measures in classrooms,” she said. “Some districts have pretty much said we are not going to be able to enforce social distancing.”
Inequities laid bare
Rural or urban, the situation is similar and affects different communities inequitably. “By not passing the HEROES Act, [senators] sent a very clear message that the children of Philadelphia are not relevant or not important enough for them to care,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, the national political director of Faith in Action, speaking in Philadelphia. He noted that many of the children who will be hardest hit by the lack of resources are children of color. “Black lives matter, Black children matter, and the reality is that we’ve gotten a very clear message from our United States Senate that Black children’s lives don’t matter. … We need to make sure that the teachers and teacher aides have everything that they need, otherwise we are condemning Philadelphia to continuing in deep cycles of poverty.”
“We’re not just fighting for more funding for schools,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). “We’re fighting to save the American dream. If we deny the opportunity of an education to this generation and generations to come, we are saying to them you are cut off from the American dream, it need not apply to you. That is immoral, unconscionable and un-American.”
Fighting for the basics
Even where districts have distributed Chrome books for remote learning, for many communities it is not enough. “About 90 percent of our families did not have devices and Wi-Fi at home when the pandemic hit,” said Jerry Alonza, a San Francisco elementary school teacher who spoke at a press conference with Pelosi. “Imagine what we’re dealing with as kids are fighting over which one of them gets to use the computer today,” said high school teacher Lincoln Stocks, president of Eastpointe Federation of Teachers in Michigan. “It really is a very difficult situation, and the catastrophic loss of learning capacity that we’re going to experience is substantial.”
Teachers at various events described colleagues who are retiring because they do not feel safe, and others who are “terrified.” Many schools do not have enough PPE and cleaning supplies. Some do not have sufficient hand-washing facilities; even soap is in short supply. Teachers are having to take on engineering and facilities tasks like measuring how far apart their students’ desks are.
“Saying education has to be face-to-face without considering science or facts on the ground is reckless and shows no concern for the safety of students and staff,” said David Hecker, AFT Michigan president and an AFT vice president. “Let's recommit to fighting the #COVID19 virus for the sake of our children,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.). “We can crush the virus with testing, tracing and treatment. We can have strong workplace protections. We can have robust support for state and local governments and schools.”
At the virtual Florida event, Weingarten agreed, and she underscored the union’s commitment to get educators and students what they need. “Testing, tracing, isolation, PPE, ventilation, connectivity, tools and more require resources,” she said. “We don't have them from Trump, McConnell and Senate GOP lawmakers. Once again, we have to hit the streets to get kids the education they need.”