White House hosts town hall boosting back-to-school joy

National leaders in education and health held a virtual town hall meeting at the White House Sept. 1, conveying the excitement and joy of families whose children are back in school. Besides sharing new information on academics, health and safety, the leaders expressed gratitude for having an educator in the White House, first lady and community college professor Dr. Jill Biden, whom they credited with helping drive the Biden administration’s education agenda.

Kids going back to school
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U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona led the town hall. AFT President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Becky Pringle brought questions from their members for the other panelists: Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, and Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cardona began by crediting President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan and student loan forgiveness reforms for helping people get back on their feet at the start of the school year. He noted that only 47 percent of public schools were open full-time when Biden took office in January 2021, swelling to 99 percent by last November.

Jha, a practicing physician and leading public health expert with deep expertise in infectious diseases, praised “the miracle of science”—vaccines and treatments, to be precise—for enabling students to attend school full time and in person.

Weingarten echoed Cardona’s emphasis on partnership in opening a new school year in which students can continue to recover and thrive. “I wish I could bottle the excitement and the hope,” she said, as schools mitigate staff shortages, emphasize safety and promote learning. “We have to focus like a laser on what kids need.”

Weingarten relayed a question from an AFT member who wanted to know who to ask if she wasn’t sure whether ventilation had been improved at her school. Jha suggested discussing it with the principal and school district. The CDC’s Walensky emphasized that, besides COVID-19, other respiratory viruses and asthma can be a threat to many people, so good ventilation helps everyone.

Walensky said the CDC’s guidance has changed as the virus and the science have changed. She said that anyone who chooses to wear a mask should be able to and should feel supported. If the threat of COVID-19 is medium or high, she added, everyone at high risk of getting sick should wear a mask or respirator. And for those who are immunocompromised, treatment is available.

Weingarten said she appreciated having top medical experts available for the town hall, noting that unions often advocate for health and safety measures like good ventilation.

Unfortunately, too many kids are not vaccinated at all against COVID-19, Jha lamented. He acknowledged that children are less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19 but pointed out that lots of kids still do. And he rejoiced that the Food and Drug Administration was authorizing new vaccines that defend against the omicron variant. “It’s pretty exciting, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It should provide a much higher degree of protection.” Everyone 12 and over is eligible, but before getting a booster, you first must have a primary series of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Jha and Walensky both addressed concerns about monkeypox. It’s very different from COVID-19, they said. The risk is low at schools, and infection requires prolonged contact with the skin, not casual contact. If you feel sick or have an undiagnosed rash, stay home, Walensky advised. She directed people to the CDC website for specific questions and answers.

Education Secretary Cardona pointed to school districts that didn’t fix their ventilation systems because they’re so backlogged with deferred maintenance, especially in older school buildings where capital expenditures on HVAC systems and new roofs have been lagging for decades. He called on cities to use American Rescue Act funds to fix them. The idea is not to go back to what we had but to build back better, he said. “It’s on all of us together to make sure that happens.”

Despite the panel’s overall optimism, Jha warned that we must not return to pre-pandemic inequities for people of color. The federal government, he said, can’t just provide vaccines and walk away; officials must exert extra effort to secure equitable access to vaccinations.

Academics, mental health

Between the discussions on health and academics, first lady Jill Biden greeted town hall participants with a video message. She enthusiastically described the sensations that come with going back to school in person—the scent of freshly waxed floors, the feeling of summer fading, the sound of new students chatting and laughing, students who will grow, discover and learn together. Dr. Biden acknowledged that the job isn’t easy, that teachers and staff will be tired and frustrated, but she added her hope that they can hold on to a sense of possibility. By changing lives and guiding the next generation, she told educators, “you make miracles every day.”

Cardona expressed thanks, saying it’s great to have a teacher in the White House. And HHS Secretary Becerra credited the first lady with being “tenacious” on behalf of children, together with her husband President Biden, who shares her values on education.

Becerra observed that educators are being tested by a sense of helplessness among children. The Education Department already has begun disbursing nearly $300 million Congress appropriated in fiscal 2022 to help schools hire more school-based mental health professionals and build a strong pipeline into the profession.

Together with the new national 988 suicide chat line, hotline and texting service, and other initiatives like therapy dogs in West Virginia schools, Becerra said HHS wants to provide funding through Medicaid to help kids at school with their mental health. He said that to ease stress and trauma among students and to help retain school staff, these Medicaid services must be available long term. “We want in. We can help,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest game-changer we can provide.”

“This is something that we’ve wanted to do for literally years,” Weingarten replied.

The AFT president raised ways the pandemic has widened healthcare and academic disparities for disadvantaged kids. Looking at fresh results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, she said, we can start to quantify the damage to teaching and learning. We know a lot more than we did two years ago, and soon we’ll have more results. The big questions, she said, are how to accelerate learning and how to help kids recover and thrive.

What kids need

Cardona had a few ideas. How about we fund schools adequately? he asked. Set decent class sizes? Provide better working conditions? Raise wages? Improve reading instruction? Cultivate “grow-your-own” programs for prospective teachers? Teachers need professional salaries, working conditions and agency, he said. “That’s what they’re asking for.”  

The education secretary wondered how teachers will ever feel respected when they have to take second or third jobs driving cabs or waiting tables over the weekend. “That’s unacceptable,” he said. “They’re professionals. Let’s start treating them like professionals.” He also gave a shoutout to the “tremendous paraeducators” he had relied on as a teacher.

Weingarten said she felt gratified that, in one week, three Cabinet secretaries came to talk with parents, educators and school support staff about what’s important for kids.

“People would want to be teachers if they knew they’d be respected,” Weingarten said. Instead, some aren’t even allowed to teach about Ruby Bridges or Anne Frank and can’t afford to live in certain cities.

Cardona pledged to keep listening and invited teachers and staff to keep bringing him tough questions: “We’re going to be a better country because of it.”

[Annette Licitra]