Washington (PAI) — The coronavirus pandemic-forced school closures, and upcoming reopening of all public schools this fall is a massive opportunity to reimagine and retool public education, so it serves all kids and gives teachers and staff the support and respect they deserve, says Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten.
“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” Weingarten declared May 13 in an hour-long speech on the union’s Facebook page.
Federal data, Weingarten reported, shows 97 percent of all schools have reopened fully or partially, and continued vaccination of the rest of the U.S. is the key to full back-to-school efforts in buildings.
Partially opened schools are those that have teachers instructing students both in classrooms and via Zoom, leaving teachers frazzled and with heavier workloads, parents harried and forced to quit jobs to monitor their kids’ lessons, reduced learning by kids and no social interaction or support services.
‘FULLY AND SAFELY’
The nation must reopen the schools “fully and safely, five days a week,” Weingarten said. She presented a 10-point plan, available on AFT’s website, to do so. And it includes not just reimagining and retooling schools and learning themselves but also what schools can do for kids, parents and communities — from lunches to mental health counseling.
A poll commissioned by AFT, and released the day before the speech, showed an overwhelming majority of parents — white, Black, Spanish-speaking and Asian-American — also want schools fully reopened, but only with proper safeguards to prevent recurring spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Weingarten strongly made that point in her address, too.
Parents participating in the poll also overwhelmingly supported teachers’ stands for allotting more money to in-person learning and support services, giving teachers more freedom to teach, encouraging students to learn by experimenting and doing, and targeting money to community-based schools, among other goals.
Weingarten said reimagined post-pandemic schools should have all those characteristics — and be physically safe for the students, teachers, parents and staff.
“Educators have yearned to be back in school, with their students,” said Weingarten, a New York City high school civics teacher. “They only asked for two things: A safe workplace during this pandemic and the resources they and their students need to succeed.”
Weingarten touted Democratic President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act and follow-up legislation Biden has proposed as providing the needed money.
That stands in sharp contrast to Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who pushed for too-quick school reopenings, and provided little aid for cash-strapped school districts, she noted.
Left unsaid was when Congress overrode Trump and provided funds for public schools, his Education Secretary, union- teacher-and-public-school hater Betsy DeVos, tried to divert billions to private schools.
“We must do far more than physically return to schools, as important as that is to create the normalcy we crave,” Weingarten declared. She compared the opportunity to reimagine and retool schools to the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century in New York City and the Renaissance which followed the Middle Ages in Europe.
ONLY IF SCHOOLS ARE SAFE
But such a school renaissance can only occur if the schools are safe, and that was the one stumbling block the poll revealed. There’s a slim majority support for returning to in-person learning, but the figure soared to 80 percent or more among all groups, including teachers, if they could be assured that schools would be safe.
That means implementing mask-wearing and physical distancing, reducing class sizes, encouraging vaccinations and implementing other anti-virus measures.
Eighty-nine percent of the teachers surveyed reported being vaccinated against COVID-19, or having appointments to be vaccinated.
FOCUS ON STUDENTS
A school renaissance doesn’t mean “teach to the test” or concentrating on just the Three Rs while tossing music, art, civics education and other subjects out the window, Weingarten warned. All those and more can be vital parts of teaching students to be creative and think for themselves, rather than learn by rote.
“We must put in place the supports to help students recover — socially, emotionally and academically. And we must reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passion, builds confidence, nurtures critical thinking and brings learning to life-—so all children have access to the opportunities that give them the freedom to thrive.”
To help implement the plan, Weingarten said AFT would expand its normal “Back to school” pre-re-opening drive, usually focused on reorienting students, to focusing on kids, parents, teachers and the community.
Its $5 million “Back to School for Everyone” national campaign would “connect not just with teachers and school staff but also with families and communities to communicate the importance of in-school learning and build families’ trust and confidence in children returning to school,” she said.
The plan also envisions joint committees of parents, teachers, administrators and, where appropriate, students, rethinking what schools look like and should do.