NEA President: Educators Are Finding Unique Ways to Reach, Teach and Inspire

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When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, the work of public school educators didn’t stop. It went into overdrive as they figured out ways to feed students who rely on school meals, provide creative ways to keep instruction going (online and offline, when necessary) and make regular check-ins with students and families they knew were struggling. For families and communities across America, schools continued to be their anchor.

“Educators’ swift creation and launch of virtual engagement classrooms and opportunities for students to both maintain skills and provide students and families with a sense of continued engagement and community has been nothing short of extraordinary,” said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García at a June 22 keynote address for Rise Up for Equity: A Virtual Summit on Community Engagement and Family Engagement, a joint conference of the Community Schools National Forum and the National Family and Community Engagement Conference. “They are finding unique ways to reach, teach and inspire.”

NEA is a partner of the Institute for Educational Leadership and the Coalition for Community Schools, the sponsors of the event, and is an advocate for the Community Schools model that adapts to the needs of individual schools’ students, families, staff and communities.

The virtual conference has connected nearly 4,000 participants—everyone from students to school district leaders, community organizers to elected officials, early childhood educators to university faculty. It is a month-long event that began June 1st and closes June 26th, 2020, where participants could join as many as 80 different sessions in the virtual format.

Pandemic Highlights Community Schools Model

What community schools recognize, Eskelsen García told participants, and what the past few months have made abundantly clear, is that meeting our students’ needs  inside  the classroom means recognizing that the unmet needs they have  outside  the classroom directly impacts their ability and desire to learn.

The pandemic and the current economic crisis exposed what educators have long called attention to – the severe systemic inequities, particularly racial inequities, that plague not just our public education system, but our social, economic, and political systems.

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“I am so proud that our union has risen to this moment to demonstrate resilience, creativity, teamwork, and a passionate commitment to creating the just society of which we all dream,” she said.  “Educators are working to break down barriers of institutional and structural racism that impede our ability to come together as a nation and achieve our vision. We are supporting and advocating for those with physical disabilities. We are defending the rights and dignity of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. And we are standing up for equal opportunity as we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.”

A Community Approach to Reopening

As states decide how and when to reopen schools, Eskelsen García said health and safety must be the primary driver of when it is safe to reopen school buildings in each community, including mental health.

Schools must ensure that our education support professionals and other school staff who interact with students and their families have the proper personal protective equipment and training to protect students, colleagues, families, and themselves, Eskelsen García said. She also recommended that districts consider suspending academic instructional activity for two weeks to start school with a focus on social and emotional learning activities that includes trauma screening and supports to help students and adults deal with grief and loss.

As community schools have shown, embedding housing, food, health, dental, and job services in neighborhood schools is a common-sense and proven approach to boost academic achievement and community vitality while addressing some of the root causes of poverty.

“The safety and well-being of students and educators when they return to school cannot be compromised,” she said. “When the buildings reopen, we will all need the time and space to reconnect, to grieve, to heal, and to refocus. Students will need specialized staff like school nurses, school social workers, and school psychologists who will have a crucial role to play, addressing mental and behavior health issues as well as broader issues of ensuring that reopened schools remain safe and healthy,” she said.

Eskelsen García said districts and schools should also conduct needs assessments for each school community that include educator, parent, student, and community voices to understand the needs and assets related to academics, physical and mental health, and socioeconomic conditions.

None of this is possible, she emphasized, without proper funding.

“For schools to be successful, policymakers must not only invest in education but also in addressing issues surrounding education, such as mortgage and rent cancellation for families in economic crisis; school-based community food programs; increased local hiring to provide jobs for unemployed adults; broadband Internet and 1:1 device access for all homes; free access to higher education opportunities; and a more robust public health infrastructure, including programs like basic health screenings and widespread access to community-based mental health services,” she said.

As community schools have shown, embedding housing, food, health, dental, and job services in neighborhood schools is a common-sense and proven approach to boost academic achievement and community vitality while addressing some of the root causes of poverty.

“We’re calling on Congress to provide at least $175 billion to distribute to states and local districts, allocated by formula based on poverty, to fill COVID-19 budget gaps that will hurt students and educators in schools and on campuses,” she said. “We are at a critical time in our nation. Together, we must demand that our leaders do the right thing for our students, educators and communities.”