Words of wisdom mark AFT back-to-school town hall

Five top experts on education and health met with AFT President Randi Weingarten for a virtual town hall Aug. 31 to offer insights on how to make this year’s return to school safe, meaningful and productive for all students.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, whom Weingarten called “a voice of reason and expertise,” led off by recognizing what everyone has been through and sharing his knowledge of the emerging science behind the new delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. Murthy was joined by Dr. Samira Brown, a leading pediatrician; Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science adviser, Turnaround for Children; Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA—The School Superintendents Association; and Nathan Monell, executive director of the National PTA.

BTS Telephone town hall

Every teacher, school bus driver and parent understands the benefits of in-person learning, said Weingarten, who has visited more than 20 cities so far on her back-to-school tour. Our goal, she said, is to “help our kids not just survive, but thrive, get their mojo back and have a school year of joy and of learning.”

With the right protocols, she added, and using the tools we have for curbing the spread of the virus—vaccines, masking, good ventilation and sanitation—we can achieve a promising start to the school year. “And the more we do that, the better we do that, the more we can, I think, diffuse a lot of the tension that is in the United States right now,” Weingarten said.

Murthy began by noting that he came to the town hall not only as a surgeon but as a dad. He commended educators and staff for their heroic work in putting kids first. He wants us to know that even though we’re in the middle of a new surge, “there will be an end to this pandemic. That end will come.”

Our efforts are not simply focused on getting children back in the classroom, he said, but in helping them heal from trauma. As happens after hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires, there are immediate “acute” effects and mental health effects that take longer to recognize and address. “Healing,” he said, is often the word that comes to mind when he thinks about children.

Asked about members’ and parents’ questions on the safety of vaccines, Murthy said it’s good to ask questions and people shouldn’t be shamed for asking questions about what they’re putting into their bodies.

He explained that the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was developed over two decades, and that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is based on long-established science. The vaccines were released so quickly, he said, because scientists were able to conduct many studies at the same time instead of sequentially.

“Nothing was shortchanged,” he said. With 350 million doses administered in the United States so far, he added, the vaccines are remarkably effective and safe.

Murthy busted some myths, too. He said there’s no evidence linking vaccines to problems with fertility. If you’re not vaccinated and get pregnant, he said, COVID-19 poses a greater risk of hospitalization as well as pre-term labor and delivery. On the other hand, vaccinated expectant moms and vaccinated new moms who nurse their babies will pass along protective antibodies.

The surgeon general said he knows it’s a scary time. But he also knows that getting through the pandemic will require us to stick together. The more people who get vaccinated, he said, the stronger the barrier we will have against transmission of the virus. We have lost hundreds of children since the beginning of the pandemic, he said, and thousands of children have been hospitalized.

It’s a time to stay close to our kids and make sure they know we love them and are there for them, he said. “As a doctor who’s prescribed many medicines over the years, it has always struck me that the most powerful medicine we have—the most powerful source of healing that we have—is in fact the love that we give one another.”

Social-emotional learning

Nathan Monell of the National PTA has a front-row view of the arguments raging over COVID-19 mitigation. His observation: When we partner, we get the best results. He advised educators to include parents in the conversation and, when schools succeed in defending against new cases, to share those results. He also had some advice for parents: Be respectful and civil toward education professionals. “Use your kind voices,” he said. “Your children are watching.”

Dr. Pamela Cantor, a specialist on trauma, observed that we’re living in “a COVID paradox, where to stay safe we’ve had to be physically distant from the most important people in our lives.” The problem with students staying away from educators, coaches and school support staff, she explained, is that contact releases good and powerful hormones, especially oxytocin, a buffer against stress that actually builds resilience against future stress. Oxytocin wires the brain for learning, motivation and trust, she said: “We can’t live well, we can’t love well, without this hormone.”

Randi Weingarten and Fed Ingram in Cincinnati
AFT President Randi Weingarten, top right, and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, top left, visit with members at Ethel M. Taylor Academy, a public elementary school in Cincinnati.

Cantor recommended that teachers consult a “playbook” for social-emotional learning on the Turnaround for Children website, which includes five principles for designing practices that support the whole child.

Dan Domenech of the school superintendents’ group recalled how optimistic everyone felt in July about reopening schools in person. And how the pandemic roared back in August. Although about half of schools have reopened for instruction, he said, many already are having to quarantine or shut down.

This is the third school year that has affected our students, Domenech noted. High school sophomores at the start of the pandemic are now going into their senior year still under a cloud. He suggested that teachers, instead of starting class by saying, “Open your math book to page 44,” say, “How are you doing? How’s your family? How are you feeling?”

School administrators need to do everything in their power to ensure safety, he said, praising superintendents in states like Florida and Texas who persist in taking safety measures despite threats to defund their schools. In fact, Domenech said he’d just received a text from a superintendent in Oregon who was fired by the school board because he insisted on proper safety measures.

Weingarten said AFT members are supporting brave superintendents in Florida who are risking their jobs to push back against a governor bent on thwarting every proven protection against COVID-19. She also pointed to St. Louis as a place where educators and administrators, working together, are tamping down the pandemic.

Dr. Samira Brown, a Georgia pediatrician and co-founder of Little Lives PPE (personal protective equipment), said she is inspired by the AFT’s work for the health and well-being of all children.

To date, she warned, there have been 4.8 million cases of COVID-19 in children, and not always benign cases. One in 100 kids comes down with acute infection, and some have suffered two long-term effects: a rare condition marked by high fever called multi-inflammatory syndrome in children, and what is broadly known as “long COVID” or “long-haul COVID.”

Some three-quarters of children with MISC must be treated in the intensive care unit, and up to 2 percent lose their lives, Brown said. The delta variant is twice as contagious as the original virus, and people infected with the delta variant can carry 1,000 times the viral load of those infected with the original coronavirus strain.

Her advice: Mask all students and school staff, correctly and consistently, with a snug fit and filters. “That’s the safest way for kids to come back to school,” she said.

The panelists had time to field a few questions. A member from Albuquerque, N.M., asked why computers are being purchased with American Rescue Act funds but we’re not hearing much about improvements to school ventilation systems.

“Ventilation isn’t sexy,” said Monell, but pointed to a PTA survey out Sept. 1 in which 77 percent of parents say ventilation is an important or very important consideration in their children returning to school.

Monell cited the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which says a quarter of school districts need serious replacement or upgrades of their HVAC systems. He asked AFT members to look up recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to achieve proper ventilation in preK-12 settings. The CDC report is called “Ventilation in Schools and Child Care Programs.”

Monell also urged people to tell their members of Congress to add funds for rebuilding and repairing crumbling schools to the infrastructure bill. The PTA calls for the same amount of funding the AFT is advocating: $100 billion in direct grants and $30 billion in bonds for school infrastructure.

Finally, Cantor was asked how to help kids with autism and other special needs keep their masks on. She offered strategies for optimizing mask safety, including outdoor learning, making masks fun by decorating them with kids’ names or “superpowers,” and giving students “a tremendous amount of positive reinforcement.” She also recommended a new op-ed by leading education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond: “Ending the Masking Wars: The Path to Ensuring Our Children Are Safe and Well-Educated This Year.”

Watch the full Facebook Live conversation here.

[Annette Licitra]