By Amanda Menas
Communities across the country are grappling with how to safely reopen school buildings and college campuses. Educators and parents recently had the opportunity to speak about it with fellow educator and NEA member Dr. Jill Biden, who set out on a virtual listening tour to find out more about educators’ and families’ top concerns.
Many educators, students, and parents are uncertain about their ability to return to school safely–especially given the shocking lack of leadership at the federal level.
President Trump has ignored guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggests schools should remain closed until states can show “declines in flu-like illnesses and documented COVID-19 cases . . . [and are] ready to protect children and staff who are at higher risk of severe illness and [are able to] screen everyone for symptoms and a history of exposure to the disease.” Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have instead used the COVID-19 pandemic to urge Congress to support a $5-billion school voucher that would transfer public funds to private schools.
“A generation of students, families, and educators are counting on all of us to prevent the spread of this virus, and empower them to grow, and invest in their future, our future,” said Dr. Biden, speaking to Virginia educators. Her listening tour also included virtual stops in Arizona and North Carolina.
Families, educators, and communities are looking for leadership—the kind that places people before party; prioritizes the public schools that 90 percent of students attend as well as the institutions of higher education that graduate the majority of students of color; and recognizes the urgency in addressing the marginalization that affects Native American students, Black and Brown students, students with disabilities, and those from rural areas.
Elementary and middle school counselor Jentae Scott-Mayo told Dr. Biden that increased mental health services and more counselors will be critical as school resumes in the fall.
“I’m concerned about students that struggle with transition and social skills and how they are going to adjust with a rapidly changing learning environment… All these transitional concerns are on top of fear, anxiety, and just challenges in the home environment that we may or may not be aware of taking place while they’ve been at home for the last few months,” said Scott-Mayo. She told Dr. Biden that she is concerned also for educators like her who already have caseloads that are bursting at the seams.
Dr. Biden agreed that mental health services in schools will be important because students will have dealt with “food insecurity, with anxiety, child abuse is on the rise; so all these kids are going to be bringing all these problems into the classroom. Not only is the history teacher going to have to teach history, but ease every child’s fears.”
The Biden Plan for an Effective Reopening that Jumpstarts the Economy prioritizes wraparound services for the entire community. At the urging of school counselors like Scott-Mayo, Joe Biden has pledged that his administration will provide funding to train school communities in social-emotional learning practices to help students, educators, and families adapt to new circumstances. Biden committed to doubling the number of psychologists, counselors, and nurses on school campuses as well.
Here are four more ways Joe will support students, educators, and communities as schools reopen in the fall:
He will invest in schools
Dr. Biden told educators that Joe “knows that schools are going to need funds to keep staff and students safe,” starting with protective gear and ensuring that students and educators can properly socially distance themselves while in the classroom. The Biden Plan highlights the need for increased access and funding for technology and internet service if cases spike and vulnerable students are back at home.
He will listen to educators
Biden has promised to listen to medical professionals on when to reopen our economy and to listen to educators on how to reopen our schools. Dr. Biden shared, “Joe also understands that the best policies don’t come from politics, they come from listening to educators and families like all of you. You know better than anyone what your students need.” Joe Biden has pledged that his administration “would mobilize the federal government, in cooperation with educators, child care providers, unions, communities, and families.”
He will combat racial inequalities
Jill and Joe Biden know that institutional racism impacts not only America’s criminal justice system and economy but also our education system. Addressing this, Dr. Biden said, “Safety, opportunity, and education should not be dependent on your race or your zip code.” The Biden plan will provide funds for child care providers and schools — particularly Title I schools — to cover costs of ensuring that low-income students and students of color do not fall behind. Dr. Biden also noted that under Biden’s administration, universal pre-K will begin for 3-year-olds to aid parents with childcare, and to ensure that all children start out on equal footing.
He will help schools share best practices
Joe Biden’s plan to combat the COVID-19 crisis would mobilize the federal government–in cooperation with educators, child care providers, unions, communities, and families–to take decisive action to operate schools and child care programs safely. Biden plans to build a “Safer Schools Best Practices Clearinghouse” to help schools and child care providers across the country share approaches and tools for reopening schools.