Reopening schools? Make sure communities are involved

“Nothing about us without us.”

black students protest the reopening of their school during the covid 19 pandemic

As schools begin planning to reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this familiar mantra from countless disenfranchised communities is reverberating among educators, parents and students who are insisting they be a part of the planning process. “Those of us who are directly impacted by decisions should be at the center of making those decisions,” says Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel (SAA).

Educators and their districts are considering myriad issues. How will students be seated in classrooms to maintain safe physical distancing, staying at least six feet apart from one another? Will classes be staggered so that fewer students can be in a classroom at once? How will bus schedules be coordinated? Will there be a mix of remote learning and on-site learning?

What about hand-washing stations at school entry points? Will there be screening in place for those who may be COVID-19 carriers? How can schools protect at-risk students and staff?

The AFT has developed a comprehensive reopening plan that includes input from educators, parents, students and health experts. Affiliates are using this guide and tailoring it to their specific districts.

AFT members in Cincinnati, Ohio; San Antonio, Texas; Broward and Orange counties, Fla. and elsewhere are working hard to make sure community voices are heard with telephone town halls and surveys. AFT President Randi Weingarten will join the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association at a telephone town hall on Thursday, June 25.

“We have to explicitly say we are going to prioritize health and safety,” says Lopez, who is working in coalition with other community members on reopening. Along with the San Antonio Coalition on School Reopening, a group of 20 organizations from Bexar County AFT to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, SAA has organized a telephone town hall scheduled for June 25 to discuss its reopening blueprint and gain input from the community. The Texas AFT has sent an open letter to the state superintendent and school board underscoring the importance of school employee input in the planning process.

“Families have received very little information from our district or the state since schools closed in March,” says Sarah Sorenson, a parent activist and leader of the Our Schools Coalition in San Antonio. “State leaders have been meeting virtually with superintendents regularly throughout the past few months, but those meetings have not been public. I am concerned that, if we don’t push back, we are at risk of botching school reopening the same way we have botched our economic reopening.”

Lopez adds that a “return to normal” is not enough. “At this point where we see inequities really laid bare by the pandemic, this moment can push us to reimagine what our schools can be,” she says. “Returning to normal is really not good enough for our students.”

The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers has also centered community in its efforts to guide reopening plans and distributed a survey to ensure parents’ concerns are included in planning. The survey’s results show parents are concerned about: distancing in the classroom, lunch room and on the school bus; cleanliness of school buildings; access to PPE; protocol for sick students and teachers; and access to remote learning tools, among other things. They suggest having smaller class rosters, temperature checks and COVID-19 testing, a split schedule, more frequent opportunities for hand-washing and virtual interactive learning.

The CFT agrees with the SAA that now is a time to address racial inequities in school districts, as well. Members joined the Cincinnati Education Justice Coalition and other activists at a rally on Friday, June 19 to call for a “safe, equitable and anti-racist reopening” of schools, pointing out the connection between the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the health and economic well-being of people of color and racial injustice writ large.

“When school begins again, we cannot go back to business as usual,” said ESL specialist and CFT member Nakida Davis at the rally. “We are in the midst of a pandemic called racism. As educators we are on the frontlines of this pandemic.”

Nakia Davis at protest for the importance of black students and their health

“The disproportionate, deadly impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and working-class communities has shown in sharp relief the lack of a social safety net,” CEJC wrote in a statement. “Amidst all of this, public education, one of the remaining hopes for racial justice, advancement, democracy and community, is being targeted with budget cuts during a crisis of historic proportions. In this unprecedented moment, with public schools reopening post-COVID-19, we must demand transformed schools, and a transformed economy.”

To that end, AFT members are pressing for passage of the HEROES Act. The bill, now in the Senate, provides funding for reopening—including specific measures for cleaning schools, training for continued remote learning, additional counseling and physical health services and emergency financial aid for housing, food, technology, healthcare and child care. And it guards against austerity measures that could land hard at a time of greater need for education spending.

Back in San Antonio, the SAA has joined the San Antonio Coalition on School Reopening, signing a statement insisting they be included  in decision-making around reopening, and that student and worker safety be prioritized “above all else.”

“When we read the CDC guidance for reopening schools, it’s clear that a safe reopening is going to involve everyone adjusting our behavior and taking responsibility to ensure that we are helping to keep each other safe,” says Sorenson, the San Antonio parent activist. “This requires trust and shared ownership over the reopening process.”

[Virginia Myers]