By Amanda Menas
Too often, education decisions are made by politicians and non-educators who have never stepped foot in a classroom and don’t listen to educators. The current administration in Washington is the perfect example. Betsy DeVos serves as secretary of education despite having zero experience in public education, and she supports pouring public resources into vouchers rather than making necessary investments in the public schools that more than 90 percent of American students attend.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, listening to educators is more important than ever. On Thursday, Dr. Jill Biden–a veteran educator, long-time NEA member, and wife of presidential candidate Joe Biden–worked with NEA to host a tele-town hall, during which NEA members had the opportunity to speak directly with her about what they need to support students now, and when they return to the classroom. She also heard about educators’ own challenges.
“Even though we are struggling with physical distancing, I know you are still there with your kids. In the midst of one of the biggest disruptions to our lives that many of us will ever see, thank you for being a source of strength to students and families,” said Dr. Biden to more than 6,000 educators who called in.
Dr. Biden heard first-hand from teachers who are working hard to provide digital access so students don’t fall behind. Their number one concern continues to be student access to technology.
Educators, students and parents are experiencing the harsh realities of the opportunity gap: Students who do not have access to updated technology or an internet connection are simply unable to connect with educators and classmates and access online learning activities. The digital divide often impacts students of color and those in rural areas, as Deborah, a high school librarian from Washington shared.
“What delayed us for weeks in starting our actual remote learning was the issue of equity around technology. Our district tech people worked day and night to strip Chromebook carts out of classrooms, and find chargers and find hotspots and try to distribute them. We still had many kids who did not have a device at home and didn’t have internet and we ran out of hotspots,” said Deborah. “It’s just an incredible burden. We just can’t reach our kids without it.”
Dr. Biden said she and Joe are supporting efforts to increase equity in the classroom, starting with investing $20 billion in broadband connectivity, “so that all kids have equal access.”
“We have to have it. What I’m hearing is that, what the experts are saying, what the doctors are saying we could have a second wave of this. God forbid, but we have to be prepared for it,” said Dr. Biden. NEA has also been advocating for Congress to fund universal broadband access, connection devices, and hotspots through the long-standing and effective E-Rate program in order to help families participate in virtual learning.
“We will go back to school, but we will not go back to education as it was because all kids were not given equal access,” reiterated Dr. Biden.
Access to technology is also important for students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and especially the social emotional wellbeing of students, said Tina, an educator from Connecticut.
“With the curriculum-driven delivery model we can only cover so much in a meaningful way. I worry about unmet needs during this important developmental time in their young lives but I especially worry about my students with underlying social and emotional needs, special needs, and whose structure and social interaction happened only at school, who feel so isolated and lonely at this time. Can we balance social and emotional needs with academic needs?”
Dr. Biden said that with Joe as president, there will be full funding for telehealth in addition to school mental health services. “I’ve had students come to me with all kinds of problems whether it is violence in the home, whether it’s food insecurity…One of the things about our students is that they trust us,” said Dr. Biden about working with students through anxiety and trauma as they return to the classroom.
“There’s so much we have to do to create equality and balance that all students get all their needs met. It’s got to start at the top, it’s got to start with leadership,” said Dr. Biden, who assured callers that a Biden Administration supports fully funding IDEA within 10 years and will appoint a Secretary of Education committed to full inclusion for students with disabilities.
Educators on the call spoke about their advocacy to increase food security for their students and fellow educators, and to secure additional personal protective equipment for educators as they continue to serve their communities.
She also heard how many education support professionals are losing pay as schools are shuttered during the pandemic, and why educators still working on the front lines should be classified as first responders to ensure that they are provided personal protective equipment.
Annette, an ESP working with high school students with autism in Minnesota, highlighted that many educators are being asked to play new roles in this time of distance learning due to closures of school buildings.
“We are hourly workers who don’t get the respect we deserve during good times and we are the first to lose pay as well as face layoffs during these crises, and in Minnesota are often educators of color. Before this pandemic, ESPs were already experiencing inequities, and it has only gotten worse…This is the perfect opportunity for that to change through legislation,” said Annette.
Dr. Biden expressed her gratitude for the story and pointed out that in a Biden Administration, ESPs will receive support with funding for pay and health care, and an investment in school psychologists, nurses, and counselors on the federal level.
“One of the things I’ve heard over and over and over is how educators are having to work two and three jobs and that’s just wrong. We should be putting more money into education and place more value on education. I truly think that might be one of the silver linings of this pandemic, is that parents are going to realize how tough this job is,” said Dr. Biden.
As Dr. Biden wrapped up the event, she pledged that if Joe Biden is in the White House, “our education policy is going to be teacher-centric. We’re going to listen to you to make things better.”
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García added that educators are essential in helping the country respond to this crisis.
“We’re going to find solutions that don’t take us back to where we were, which wasn’t good enough, but take us forward into something that says now we can clearly see what equity work we have to do,” García said in closing. “To know that we have a partner in the White House who will listen to us and respect our voice, that’s what we’re going to fight for.”