No one wants to welcome students back to classrooms more than America’s educators. We know that nothing can replace the magic of a student’s curiosity when they are able to learn alongside their peers from a teacher who has dedicated her life to the success of other people’s children.
But the Trump administration's plan is appallingly reckless.
Concerned more with election dynamics than the lives of students and their educators, the White House pressure campaign presents a false choice between the health of our students and the health of our economy.
Again, educators yearn to look into the inquisitive eyes of our students—in person and as soon as safely possible. But in Washington and in too many states, our leaders aren’t offering the option of a safe learning environment.
The vast majority of our schools still have not returned to funding levels from before the 2008 financial crisis, when more than 300,000 school employees lost their jobs as states decided to balance their budgets on the backs of our students. Now we face a revenue crisis that experts project will be worse, before we begin to discuss additional funding needs related to COVID-19, such as personal protective equipment, class sizes conducive to social distancing, and ensuring social and emotional needs are met—particularly in Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
As a sixth-grade teacher from Utah, I’ve taught 39 students in a classroom with one window. I’ve toured schools in Louisiana where “temporary” portable buildings erected after Hurricane Katrina still occupy the schools’ playgrounds and physical education fields.
Multiple states have faced lawsuits over the constitutionality of sending kids to learn in schools plagued by black mold and brown water. And in too many states, classroom teachers are being payed less than a living wage, education support professionals rely on public assistance to feed their families and educators hired on contingency are sleeping in their cars.
Schools underfunded before pandemic
As we’ve seen in the #RedForEd movement, none of this was sustainable before the era of COVID-19, and it’s even less so now.
I look at the ways we, as a nation, claim to value education and think, “Are we OK with this? Is this really the best we will do for our students?” Yet even as our students, parents and educators face the crises of the moment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken a two-week vacation, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has directed relief funds to private schools at the expense of the public schools that educate 90% of our children, and President Donald Trump is, well, being Donald Trump.
Our teachers are superheroes. They’ve tackled years of underinvestment in our students and given every student they teach the best possible opportunity to succeed. But as every educator who has looked at their classroom budget and then calculated how much of their modest salaries they can expend to buy supplies for their students, we can’t continue to look for water in the dry well.
Safety must not be compromised
Americans should have no doubt that teachers want to be in their classrooms with their students on the first day of the coming school year, but we won’t acquiesce to a vision of learning that endangers the lives of everyone who walks in to a schoolhouse, as well as their families and communities.
Educators are standing ready to collaborate with policymakers, despite the lack of interest from the White House. At the National Education Association, we’ve released initial guidance on how to safely move schools back to in-person instruction. But that is not possible without more funding for our students, and the White House would rather listen to politicians and corporate CEOs than educators.
Reopening our schools full time is an admirable goal, and one we should all be dedicated to achieving safely. But with the upcoming school year rapidly approaching, now is the time to dispense with dangerously unserious proposals and focus on what works.
Educators and students need a comprehensive plan for how they will be able to learn and teach safely. We need the Senate to pass legislation that has already received bipartisan approval in the House and will provide educators and schools the resources they need to keep our students safe.
Most of all, we need White House leadership that has been truant throughout this crisis. Our students, and our future as a nation, depend on it.