Photo: Marco Fieber/Flickr
Photo: Marco Fieber/Flickr

USA: The voice of education professionals must be heard on safely reopening schools

published 17 July 2020 updated 9 June 2021

Education International’s affiliates in the United States have reasserted the need for public authorities to listen to the voice of educators and their professional organisations when reopening schools and education institutions, and to deliver proper funding for the education sector.

NEA: No one should listen to Trump, DeVos on reopening schools

On 9 July,  Lily Eskelsen García, the President of the National Education Union, called attention to the fact that “President Trump condemned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on reopening schools and threatened to withhold funding to schools that don’t reopen for fall, creating more panic for stressed families seeking leadership and assurances that their children can return to school safely during a deadly pandemic. Then he politicised reopening of schools, tying it to the November presidential election.”

She was adamant that “what is good for students and school staff has nothing to do with politics and the safety and well-being of the student and parents is exactly what is at stake,” stressing that while Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” he “forgot to add the word ‘SAFELY.’”

Eskelsen García also deplored that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos echoed Trump’s call, telling state governors that “School[s] must reopen, they must be fully operational.” She said that, although DeVos said that how schools open is best left to education and community leaders, she, nevertheless, blasted Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia for proposing a hybrid model with students attending school two days a week and learning virtually on the others until a vaccine and better treatment are widely available.

“But the real false choice is what the Trump administration is pressuring parents to make. Choosing to prioritise the health of students and school staff is not a choice to prolong mental and economic distress, as the administration suggests,” the NEA leader went on to highlight. “None of us should accept the false choice. There are ways to mitigate the risk. It will be costly, but it is worth every dime. We will not open an unsafe school. Nothing else is acceptable.”

There are plans NEA and other organisations have put forward, but neither Trump nor DeVos has acknowledged the urgent need for resources that state, local, education and community leaders have called for.

Last month, NEA released “All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings.” Built around four basic principles – health expertise, educator voice, access to protection, and leading with equity – the document lays out what schools need to do to prepare for reopening.

To accomplish this, students, educators, and their families need proper funding from policymakers to make safe school and campus re-opening a reality, Eskelsen García insisted. She reminded that Congress must act now. To address inequities as well as safety concerns, a robust response was included in the HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions), passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and which now sits in the U.S. Senate. The proposed bill includes $915 billion that can be used to pay vital workers such as educators and $90 billion in additional education funding that could save more than 800,000 education jobs at all levels from kindergarten to postsecondary.

“The American economy cannot recover if schools can’t reopen,” said Eskelsen García. “And we cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed and students don’t have what they need to be safe, learn, and succeed.”

AFT: Science and community circumstances must guide decision-making, and funding is critical

On 10 July, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with the NEA, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, issued  a joint statement on the safe return of students, teachers, and staff to schools.

“Educators and pediatricians share the goal of children returning safely to school this fall. Our organisations are committed to doing everything we can so that all students have the opportunity to safely resume in-person learning,” they explain.

These education professionals recognise that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online. Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.

The organisations go on to condemn the fact that “our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed. This pandemic is especially hard on families who rely on school lunches, have children with disabilities, or lack access to Internet or health care”.

According to them, returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but re-opening must be pursued in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics.

They also stress that “local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible. For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.  A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”

Focusing on a much-needed appropriate public funding, they underline that reopening schools in a way that maximises safety, learning, and the well-being of children, teachers, and staff “will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses”.

They therefore call on the US Congress and the Administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in US schools.

The statement concludes: “The pandemic has reminded so many what we have long understood: that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits. For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools in safely returning students to the classroom and reopening schools.”

You can read about the AFT’s plan to safely reopen schools and communities here.

You can also find the Education International’s publication Forward to School here.

The Education International’s Guidance on Reopening Schools and Education Institutions is available here.