Healing an Oregon community after a devastating wildfire. Retrofitting school ventilation systems in McAllen, Texas. Bringing together paraprofessionals and school-related personnel across Florida to learn leadership and self-care. These are just a few ways AFT affiliates used AFT Innovation Fund COVID-19 rapid response grants for the 2020-21 school year, as these inspiring videos show.
Rebuilding after Oregon wildfires
In September 2020, wildfires in Jackson County, Ore., left more than 4,000 people homeless, devastating the towns of Phoenix and Talent. Brenda Selee, Phoenix-Talent (Oregon School Employees Association) chapter vice president, recalls, “The day before school started … a fire broke out … driven by the strong winds. Our communities had to evacuate with just minutes of warning.”
Phoenix High School senior Josie Bolstad spearheaded the grant application’s writing. She says, “Thirty percent of our 2,500 students were permanently displaced.” Because people had to flee so quickly, many only “had what was on their back. … In that moment, we needed to pull together.”
The union partnered with local law enforcement to distribute colorful student backpacks filled with books, crayons, stuffed animals and masks. They joined with food relief organization Rogue Valley Farm to School to provide produce to struggling families. Grant funds also supported OSEA’s transition learning center, helping students gain not only life skills but also coping skills for COVID-19. And the union aided Jackson County Parks’ effort to rebuild the greenway destroyed in the fire.
Says Selee, “Our union, like so many others during this pandemic, came together to overcome tragedy and rebuild.”
Tackling school ventilation in a Texas hot spot
By July 2020, the Rio Grande Valley (where McAllen, Texas, is located) had become what the local health authority doctor called “the hot spot of a hot spot of a hot spot.”
McAllen AFT President Sylvia Tanguma worried. “My school district has many old campus buildings with old air conditioning units. My first thought was everyone is going to get COVID the minute we start breathing that same air that’s circulating at school.”
With its grant, and help from the Texas AFT, the local collaborated with the school board to buy added air filtration systems for all campus HVAC systems, to be installed by the beginning of August 2021. The union also supplied personal protective equipment for educators and students.
Tanguma says, “Our students and our educators deserve to attend schools that take their health seriously and that do what they can to keep them safe. I’m proud of McAllen AFT, Texas AFT and the American Federation of Teachers for investing in us and our school buildings.”
PSRPs in the spotlight in Florida
During the pandemic, teachers were front and center, but the vital work of school support staff has drawn less notice. Orange Education Support Professionals Association President and custodian Ron Pollard says, “I am very passionate to defend the rights of those who may not always be recognized for their leadership and contributions to student learning.” The Florida Education Association put its grant’s focus squarely on paraprofessionals and school-related personnel with its Across the Bridge program designed to reignite professional development and leadership for school staff statewide.
FEA professional development director Primrose Cameron and Pollard teamed up and identified professional development needs: self-care, student trauma, leadership development, and membership recruitment and retention. Pollard reports that 74 members from 16 locals successfully completed the union’s monthly trainings on these topics, “while also increasing their overall engagement with their local and state union.”
By bringing their education support professionals together, Cameron says, “we created momentum and shared energy. … This synergy will begin to be channeled into mobilizing members … across the state.”