Wish you weren’t here: AFT members tell vacationing senators to pass HEROES Act

In a national #SenateFail Day of Action on July 8, AFT members and allies across the country protested the U.S. Senate’s decision to go on vacation without passing the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed in the House six weeks ago. From car caravans and socially distant rallies to online press conferences and mass digital actions, they told senators lollygagging in their home offices: Get back to work.

As cases skyrocket, Florida orders schools to reopen five days a week

On the Day of Action, Florida reported 9,989 new cases, and Miami-Dade and Monroe counties hit their highest single-day case increases since the pandemic started. Meanwhile, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order requiring that in August districts “must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week.”

Orange County, FL dog with sign
In Orange County, Florida, AFT activists “dogged” Sens. Rubio and Scott to pass HEROES.

Educators want schools to reopen, but with the necessary funding and guided by science. For its Day of Action, the United Teachers of Dade used the Hustle app to reach out to 65,000 likely voters, enabling them to either call or send a letter to Sen. Marco Rubio asking him to support the HEROES Act. Rubio has warned that we must “make sure these new infections that we’re seeing among younger and healthier Americans don’t cross over to older and sicker Americans.” United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats says that will take massive resources.

“As educators, we want to be face to face with our students. But here in Miami-Dade, we’re at absolutely the epicenter in a state where the pandemic is skyrocketing. You can’t reopen with no masks, no proper PPE, no plexiglass. You can’t pretend everything is OK.”

Hernandez-Mats, who has a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old, says that, when it comes to reopening schools, equity matters. “As a mother who is also a union leader, I care about educating everybody’s children. For decades, it’s been a very intentional policy decision to give more to some children and less to others. This is a chance to do right by everybody. We can’t move forward for some and leave others behind. We want our children to have the educational resources not only to survive this crisis but to flourish.”

In Orange County (Orlando), the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association held a car parade that circled district headquarters while the school board was meeting inside the building to discuss reopening plans. Hundreds took part, including teachers, parents, students and community organizations. Their homemade signs read: “How many students must die?” and “Martyr was not in the job description.”

Interviewed on “Good Morning America,” OCCTA President Wendy L. Doromal said, “We do not believe that you can put a political or economic agenda before the safety and health of students, teachers or the families that they will be going home to at the end of the day.”

Wendy Doromal
Orange County (Florida) Classroom Teachers Association President Wendy Doromal speaking with press.

Hillsborough [County] Classroom Teachers Association President Rob Kriete and his members delivered letters to the offices of Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott. (On June 22, Scott said of the surge, “We clearly haven’t beat it. … We’ve got a lot of work to do.”) On July 7, infections in Hillsborough topped 15,000, leading the Tampa Bay area in new infections.

Kriete, a 24-year classroom teaching veteran, says, “Our superintendent has run the numbers. It will take $10 million a month just for PPE. We don’t have the money for basic things like masks, antibacterial soap and wipes. We have to rely on our senators’ support to get these resources. We have to rely on our senators to make the right call.”

Kriete says, “We have been understaffed for mental health services for years, but that funding could be a vital part of the HEROES Act. COVID-19 is producing a litany of challenges for our students. They’ll need trained experts in trauma and social-emotional issues.”

Educators know the stakes. Hernandez-Mats says, “One day we’ll have to answer the questions, ‘What happened when the outside world shut down? Did we give our children everything we could give and more?’ ”

In Pennsylvania, fighting for communities that have gone from struggling to crisis

Actions across Pennsylvania featured presenting report cards giving Sen. Pat Toomey an F for failing to support the HEROES Act (unlike counterpart Sen. Bob Casey, a vocal champion):

  • At Toomey’s Philadelphia office, a rally was spearheaded by the Alliance of Charter School Employees, the Federation of Pottstown Teachers, the Temple Association of University Professionals, and the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers.
  • At the senator’s Johnstown office, an F-emblazoned report card placard was unveiled, with leafleting led by the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College Federation of Teachers and the Democratic Women of Westmoreland.
  • At his Wilkes-Barre office, leaders and members of the Scranton Federation of Teachers advocated for students’ needs in a district the state put into financial recovery in 2019.
  • At his office in Harrisburg, an event featuring letter F balloons was held by the national AFT, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, SEIU 668, AFSCME and the Keystone Research Center.
  • The day’s events were livestreamed, with live commentary, on Facebook.

AFT leaders in Pennsylvania have long urged more state and federal investment in education. Pennsylvania has the greatest disparity in the nation in per pupil spending between richest and poorest districts—and one of the country’s biggest achievement gaps between white students and students of color. 

Scranton, PA socially distanced rally
Six feet apart but together in spirit: Scranton educators tell Sen. Toomey to pass HEROES.

“Pat Toomey and the rest of the Republicans who control the U.S. Senate need to step up and pass the HEROES Act,” says Arthur Steinberg, president of AFT Pennsylvania. “It has been nearly two months since the House passed the act, which would provide $3.2 billion in education funding to Pennsylvania. It’s long past time for the Senate to do likewise in order to ensure safe reopening of schools this fall.”

In Philadelphia, the health emergency caused by dangerous and crumbling schools reached a breaking point in February 2020, when the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was forced to sue the school district.

“Our students, the vast majority of whom are Black and brown and experiencing poverty, have time and again been shortchanged by society and by the officials who are supposed to be representing their needs,” says AFT Vice President and PFT President Jerry T. Jordan. “Sen. Toomey has a chance to step up and ensure that Philadelphia's schoolchildren, and schoolchildren across the commonwealth, have a chance to enter school safely this fall. It's shameful that we have to fight so hard for basic humanity—but fight on we will. Philadelphia's nearly 125,000 public school students, and their tens of thousands of educators, are counting on Sen. Toomey to quite simply do his job.”

Sarah Apt, president of the Alliance of Charter School Employees, says, “The HEROES Act represents hope for our schools and communities to be able to provide the resources needed for our students and their families to survive the pandemic.” Apt is an English as a second language teacher at North Philadelphia's Olney Charter High School, which serves about 2,000 students, including 25 percent emergent bilingual students, with a majority of families living at or below the poverty line.

“Our students have already lost family members, struggled to learn due to the digital divide, and suffered from illegal evictions,” Apt says. “Give them the most basic conditions needed to stay economically afloat, safely in their homes, and with hope for their future.”

Scranton Federation of Teachers President Rosemary Boland says, “COVID-19 is a tragedy that urges us to action. In Scranton, 81.26 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. Among our students, 37 or more languages are spoken. Our students will need more, not less, support and protection now.”

Battered by pandemic, Ohio calls for federal relief

On July 8, as AFT locals across Ohio mobilized, the Columbus Dispatch reported a 36 percent increase in Ohio’s coronavirus infections since June 21. Gov. Mike DeWine has pledged extra state funding to help schools cover reopening costs. But it won’t be enough, say Ohio Federation of Teachers and AFT Vice President Melissa Cropper and allies like Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. Dayton, for example, faces a $13 million shortfall.

“Our students have more needs than ever before due to the pandemic, school closures and the racial injustice crisis. But already we’re seeing districts having to lay off teachers and staff,” Cropper says.

Cleveland, OH members with sign
Cleveland Teachers Union members tell the U.S. Senate to stand up for schools and students.

For their Day of Action event, the OFT held a joint press conference with Mayor Whaley, the NAACP Ohio Conference, the Children's Defense Fund Ohio, the Ohio Nurses Association, and AFSCME Council 8, presenting Portman with a “needs improvement” report card.

Cropper says, “Sen. Portman can ‘bring his grade up’ by pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to move HEROES forward. Ohio faces a $2.4 billion budget shortfall. We need Sen. Portman and his fellow Senate Republicans to listen to colleagues in their own party like Gov. DeWine and governors around the country, who are begging for passage of the HEROES Act.”

She worries about protecting the vulnerable: “I have a friend, a teacher in my home district, who has a respiratory condition. She is being mocked by some in her community because she’s anxious about whether her school will provide masks and whether people will wear them. No one should have to go to work worried that they’ll die.”

Cropper also warns, “Funding should not pit education against other vital needs students and families are struggling with, such as hunger, shelter and poverty. We need to take a community approach to recovering and reopening.”

Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski and North Shore AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Harriet Applegate spoke to media before a car caravan set off to drive around Portman’s downtown office demanding the federal relief his constituents need.

Obrenski explains, “Cleveland schools’ budget was cut by $5.5. million on Teacher Appreciation Day. Knowing what we know about this disease being airborne, in our older buildings we have concerns about the ventilation. Or, for example, for years I purchased tissues and Clorox wipes for my classroom. But we teachers just don’t have the funds needed now. There could be hard choices if federal funding doesn’t come through. We’re going to see schools having to choose between PPE and cleaning supplies, and educational materials.”

She adds, “Our students have missed coming to school and learning in person with their teachers. Per a district survey, 40 percent did not have either a device or Internet access, or both, for distance learning. They’re going to need educational investment and social-emotional services. We need to be able to bring them back and help move them forward. But we can’t move them forward unless we can bring them back safely.”

The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, joined by elected officials, healthcare providers and community members, rallied outside Portman’s Cincinnati office. Speakers included CFT President Julie Sellers; registered nurse Michelle Thoman, president of the Registered Nurses Association/Ohio Nurses Association at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center; Cincinnati School Board member Ryan Messer; and City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld.  

“Our community desperately needs this bill,” says Sellers. “The Senate’s job is to take care of America, and they’ve left us stranded.”

The school district recently announced 726 layoffs—yet Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has espoused a five-day-a-week school reopening this fall (in contrast to the school board’s hybrid plan). Cranley drew outrage for his tweet about a proposed City Council ordinance requiring mask-wearing in public spaces: “If we do, will @cincyteachers wear masks and endorse in-person education for all?” (The ordinance passed on July 3, a day when Ohio reported 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 overnight.)

“Implying that the problem is teachers is ludicrous,” says Sellers. “The problem is resources. The city is cutting positions when we’re going to need more people than ever before. The health and safety logistics alone are daunting.” The CFT and its allies awarded Portman a resounding F. Sellers says, “He has failed us in every possible way. He needs to vote for what is right for children.”

On the healthcare frontlines, Thoman, an RN on UCMC’s medical-surgical floor, says, “We need a federal response to source PPE and medical devices, and to develop effective treatments and a vaccine. In Ohio we’ve seen recent cuts to Medicaid. This legislation is crucial so Ohio can receive $4.3 billion in Medicaid funding, to help protect hospitals and healthcare facilities from having to make cuts to programs and resources patients depend on.”

“We need support,” Thoman says, “and our patients need accessible frontline medical care more than ever. It is time that Sen. Portman and all Senate Republicans stop turning their backs on the people that need them most.”

[Christina Bartolomeo]