NEA Tele-Town Hall with Lily Eskelsen García on COVID-19  

Understanding the need for clear and accurate information during a time that’s filled with fear and uncertainty led NEA President Lily Eskelsen García to host a tele-town hall meeting on March 25 with more than a thousand association leaders around the country.

While there was much to celebrate on the call—from the valiant efforts of educators who are continuing to teach and support students to the announcement of NEA’s 2020 ESP of the Year—there was also business to conduct.

“The NEA building is closed during this national emergency, but…we’re working by phone, email, and any way to maintain connections [and] we’ve been working day and night to protect our members, students, and our communities,” says Eskelsen García, who was hunkered in place in her home.

The hour-long call focused on policy, advocacy, and legislation, including the $2 trillion stimulus plan out of Congress. Here are some key takeaways:

Policy: Testing, Students with Disabilities, Student Loans, and Meals.

  • Testing: The U.S. Department of Education has offered some flexibility, specifically for K-12 (higher education to come), on testing and accountability requirements for the 2019-2020 school year. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires annual testing as an accountability measure of student and school performance. However, states can apply for a waiver and bypass standardized testing. So far, well over half of the states have received a waiver—and every state is eligible to apply.
  • Students with disabilities: Additionally, the education department released guidance around supporting students with disabilities and underscored that schools “should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities.” Schools must provide a free and appropriate public education to those with disabilities, the fact sheet states, but the way that’s achieved during a coronavirus-related closure might be different. Educators and parents should work together to find ways to meet students’ needs through digital platforms, over the phone as well as through low-tech options like instructional packets and projects.
  • English language learners: While the department of education has yet to release guidance on how to support English language learners, NEA is urging school officials to include this population as part of their planning.
  • Student loans: All borrowers with federally held student loans will automatically have their interest rates set to 0% for a period of at least 60 days. Plus, each of these borrowers can apply to postpone their payments for at least two months, temporarily stopping their payments without worrying about accruing interest. This is retroactive to March 13, when the national emergency was declared. Lastly, wage garnishments and collection actions will be held for any borrowers who were moving into a default status.
  • Meals: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made it easier for all 50 states and U.S. territories to ensure students have meals. The implementation of how students will get fed has now moved to state, district, and school level decision makers.

Advocacy: Keep Pressure on Congress.

Members of Congress have seen first-hand how educators quickly work to make sure students are supported—even during a national emergency—as well as how public schools are the economic drivers for employment and the economic vitality of communities at large. In a short time, educators have put pressure on both sides of the aisle so that Congress acts to help schools, communities, and those being unemployed due to this horrific virus. For example, when a call to action was issued to support the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, in one day, 21,000 messages to Congress were sent and many thousands since then. But more is needed. Go to nea.org/coronavirus and tell Congress to do much more to support PreK, K-12, and higher education students and educators.

Additionally, as the country grapples with the impact of COVID-19, our members are looking for help and hope. If you have a personal story to tell on how this crisis has impacted your students, schools, or campuses, as well as how educators have come together to uplift one another in support of students, fill out this this form and let us know.

Legislation: More Relief Needed for Students, Educators, and Communities.

The Family First Coronavirus Response Act was passed last week and was an important first step in providing free coronavirus testing available for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured. Additionally, two weeks’ paid emergency sick leave will be available for those who are sick or quarantined or caring for others, or in the event of school and childcare facility closures. This is in addition to existing collective-bargaining agreements on paid sick leave. Emergency grants totaling $1 billion will be provided to states in 2020 for activities related to processing and paying unemployment insurance benefits, extending protections to furloughed workers. For other important highlights and details visit neatoday.org.

Next is the $2 trillion relief plan—the largest Congress has ever put together—which the Senate has approved and is now awaiting approval from the House. Highlights include:

  • $1,200 checks for most adults and $500 for each child. People with incomes up to $75,000 ($150,000 for joint filers) will receive full benefits. Benefits gradually decrease to zero at $99,000 in income ($198,000 for joint filers).
  • An Education Stabilization Fund will provide $31 billion for grants for local school districts (K-12) and higher education institutions to continue providing educational services to their students, as well a protect educator jobs. Plus, billions of dollars will be provided for higher education emergency relief. Funds can be used to defray expenses for institutions of higher education, such as lost revenue, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, and grants to students for food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and childcare.
  • Unemployment Insurance will cover individuals whose place of employment is closed as a direct result of the COVID–19 public health emergency, including educators who are not working because of closures or have a COVID-19 diagnosis, or are caring for spouse, child, or household member COVID-19. This applies to individuals who are not eligible for regular compensation or extended benefits under State or Federal law or pandemic emergency unemployment compensation and provides for an additional 13 weeks of unemployment insurance and/or are full- and part-time workers who have been laid off.

Before the call ended, Eskelsen García encouraged participants to continue to be advocates and activists for their students and their profession. “You’ve already made a difference in all of this,” she said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of you—of our members—and the heroic work that you’re doing—3 million NEA members stepping up because our country needs them.”

Stay up to date with crucial information and calls-to-action on nea.org/coronavirus.