Dr. Irwin Redlener: ‘This year has been a major challenge’ for children

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With Congress on the cusp of passing the American Rescue Plan, the AFT’s town hall on March 9 was a reflection of the progress made and the work still left to be done during the pandemic. AFT President Randi Weingarten was joined by Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund and founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

kids in classroom wearing mask

“This has been a year of hell and back, but there is good news on the horizon,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, referring to the expected passage of the American Rescue Plan. “President Biden has put together a plan to help the American people, especially those who have struggled during the pandemic,” she said. The legislation, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mitigation strategy and increased vaccine access, will put the country on the path to recovery, she said.

“This horrible pandemic has cost many lives, and the first thing we have to worry about is stopping the spread of the virus and controlling illness and deaths that it’s causing,” said Redlener. The second priority is the economy. “We’ve taken a huge hit. The lives and well-being of everyone are at stake.” One of the great things about this bill, he said, is that “it will address many of the economic pressures our citizens are feeling.”

Redlender is also concerned about the pandemic’s impact on children. “What about the fact that children have had a profoundly disruptive educational year? What does it mean for all kids? What does it mean for vulnerable children? What does it mean for children who were struggling before the pandemic?” he asked. “This is devastating. Our failure to appreciate how badly this is affecting the education and the long-term prospects for our children will be horrendous.”

The doctor said he is focused on what we need to do for our children “to remediate the losses that have been sustained.”

Weingarten noted that the AFT and NEA recently put together “Learning Beyond COVID-19,” a publication that is, among other things, focused on diagnosing students' well-being and academic success and meeting the needs of our most underserved students.

“For every vulnerable child who is already struggling with mental health and wellness, this year has been a major challenge because they have been kept out the school environment, and they are missing their peer support. They are missing the support of their teachers,” said Redlener. “A lot of work is going to need to be done to get children restabilized in an environment that’s normal. One of the things we will have to do when we start seeing children in person again is make sure we have the tools to evaluate where the kids are educationally, but also how they are doing socially and emotionally.”

Weingarten expressed disappointment in the Biden administration’s decision not to give full waivers of standardized tests which would  allow schools more time to assess the needs of students , but said the AFT’s focus will be on wraparound services for students. “We need to have the professionals—guidance counselors and social workers—on site,” said Weingarten. “Teachers will know some cues, but they are not going to know what counselors, social workers or nurses will, so I think there will have to be teams in schools. We have to be very intentional about a real orientation for kids [because] they haven’t been in school with their peers for a long time.”

The need for more counselors and mental health workers was an issue long before the pandemic but will be exacerbated by the pandemic, said Redlener. “That's a big challenge for the whole educational community, of course, but it's all the more important that teachers understand … a lot is going to fall on them to step up and do it.”

At the beginning of March, President Biden called on states to prioritize school staff and child care workers for COVID-19 vaccination. He is challenging states to get teachers, school staff and workers in child care programs their first shot by the end of March. To help states do this, the federal pharmacy program will prioritize vaccinating these groups during the month of March. Vaccinations are moving fast, says Redlener. “It’s like rolling thunder. We'll have every adult in America potentially vaccinated by the end of May.”

Redlener says if we follow the CDC guidelines of masking and social distancing, we could have a quasi-normal Thanksgiving. “We have the momentum now to keep rolling. I do think Biden is going to actually exceed his commitment to have 100 million doses out there by the first hundred days.”

He would also like to see children vaccinated at some point. “While they may not get as sick, they can be carriers. To eradicate this thing, children must be vaccinated.”

He says the decision by governors in states like Texas and Mississippi to lift restrictions such as mask mandates is reckless and irresponsible. “This is not a question of protecting or making policies that work in your community or your state. We're all in this together. And that's not just a cliché or rhetoric. This means that if we don’t have the same policies to prevent the spread in Texas, we'll have consequences that go far beyond the borders of Texas or Mississippi or Alabama. What Texas is doing is presenting a threat to the rest of us who are trying to be responsible.”

Redlener warned that the variants could also be a challenge because they are said to spread faster and could be resistant to the vaccines. “We have to stay ahead of the game—and this premature lifting of restrictions or not getting the vaccine gives [the virus] the chance to proliferate and become more problematic.”

“We've taken the position that the way you reopen schools for the rest of this semester, and probably for the summer, is to follow the CDC’s mitigation strategies,” said Weingarten. If you combine the strategies with testing and getting educators vaccinated, “you can actually keep schools open because you're really fighting the outbreaks.”

Redlener agreed. “The answer is really pretty simple: We have to follow the guidelines. We have to get people vaccinated, and we have to get kids back in the classroom as soon as possible.”

[Adrienne Coles]