Thousands of educators around the country last week joined a tele-town hall on education equity and safe school reopening. Organized by the National Education Association and moderated by award-winning reporter and C-SPAN host Jesse Holland, the event featured a live Q&A with NEA Vice President Becky Pringle and NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.
“Despite a lack of coronavirus guidance and help at the federal level,” said Pringle, “our educators rose to the challenge and tried to build consistency for their students.” Noting that many experts anticipate a resurgence of COVID cases and the potential for school closures in the future, she added, “We are now pushing hard for the Senate to pass the HEROES Act in order to ensure access to technology and other resources for all students so that they don’t experience the interruption to learning that they did this spring.”
Pringle observed that black and brown children have borne the brunt of the pandemic that closed schools. Long-standing inequities and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, she said, must be addressed, and new guidance from NEA on school reopening aims to do that. “All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings,” puts health, safety, and equity at the forefront of intentional planning and brings an opportunity to reengineer policies that have benefited some students and not prioritized others, specifically underresourced students, black and brown students, and students with disabilities.
When asked what resources or materials NEA can provide to facilitate hybrid forms of learning and students’ safe, successful re-entry to school, Pringle recommended educatingthroughcrisis.org, which offers digital supports, stress management and wellness advice, and ways to support students and families.
She also encouraged educators to conduct an equity audit of their schools to gain a better understanding of what every public school should have and to advocate for the resources necessary for “every school to look like our best public school.” She asked, “Does your school, for example, offer AP classes? Does it have a rich curriculum, beyond just test prep?” These and other questions, which can shed light on disparities and lead to a more level playing field, can be found at myschoolmyvoice.nea.org.
Also critical, Pringle and Johnson pointed out, is having political leadership that prioritizes education equity.
“Instead of talking about a false choice between charter schools and public schools, we should be talking about how to reduce barriers so that we don’t have well-resourced versus poorly resourced schools,” said Johnson. He added that we must take a global look at successful programs, see what they have in common, and implement what works. One of the key factors successful education systems have in common, he observed, is that their teachers are valued and receive adequate support so that all children receive a high-quality education. “We must provide teachers with adequate pay and support instead of devaluing the teaching profession, because that is robbing us of our future.”
In response to a teacher’s question about how to address the lack of black and brown educators, Johnson recommended a federal minimum standard for teacher salaries, which he described as being at the poverty level in some states. He also recommended accelerating the federal loan program and wiping out student debt for those who commit to teaching. High student loans and low teacher salaries in some areas not only devalue the profession, he explained, but create a pay gap that makes teaching not economically feasible.
He noted that student loan forgiveness for teachers would represent a tiny fraction of the stimulus money being provided to businesses.
“Teaching is important to our democracy, and we have to place the value on our public policy where the need is greatest,” Johnson emphasized. “We also have to invest in infrastructure. Many school buildings are old, with poor lighting and lead paint. It feels like a correctional facility when you walk in. Children should walk into school and feel like they’re being embraced. They should have clean air and a bright atmosphere. These are very tangible investments, and that’s why it’s important to vote in November for people who respect and fund education.”
Pringle noted that 500,000 education jobs have been lost to layoffs during the pandemic and warned that we could lose more than a million more in the next three years—an impact that would be felt most deeply by students with special needs.
“We need educators,” she said, “and we need them to be part of the conversation and part of NEA’s All Hands on Deck initiative. We cannot reopen schools until we have the resources to keep everyone safe.” Speaking to the circumstances faced by special needs students, as well as families headed by single parents whose children may be returning to school only part time, she added, “We must demand full funding of IDEA, which we’ve never had, and we have got to get the HEROES Act passed, which includes a stabilization fund that will, among other things, help single parents get the necessary child care.”
“Voting in November is the answer to address this current environment,” Johnson reiterated.
“Our schools are the hub of our communities,” Pringle said in her closing remarks, “and it’s absolutely critical that we all collectively speak up for our students and families. Talk to your senators about the HEROES Act. Go to educationvotes.nea.org, because we need policymakers who care about our kids and communities and have the will to do something. The most powerful thing is sharing your stories, talking to your elected officials, and telling them your needs. All our students are depending on us.”