Teachers' Union Head Praises Nationwide COVID-19 Response
Students and teachers in Northwest Florida are not alone. COVID-19 is disrupting schools around the country and teachers are stepping up.
“If you go to the National Education Association’s building, three blocks up from the White House, the lights are off,” said Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country representing three million educators. She says like the schools, the union is operating the best it can under the circumstances.
“Everybody, like myself, is on the phone, on a computer, doing a video call or an email or a text. We’re doing a lot of phone calls, we‘re talking to each other, we’re trying to find our way through this dark time.”
The NEA represents teachers in large and small districts around the country. Eskelsen-Garcia says regardless of the size of their schools, teachers are reacting pretty universally.
“I’m an elementary teacher. I have taught 39 sixth-graders in the same room. So how do you replicate what you did yesterday, digitally, tomorrow? You don’t. You can’t replicate hugging a child and telling kids ‘that’s not how we act when we’re angry’, the social, emotional lessons that go along with reading, writing and arithmetic. Kids in the same room, learning from each other, questioning, debating, arguing. No, you don’t do it in the same way. So every teacher that I know, except for the very few who are experts in distance learning, they were panicked. (Their superintendent) says ‘you’re still on the payroll, you’re still on the job, I need you to do what you were doing with these 30-something kids digitally tomorrow’.”
What the union is doing for some teachers is trying to connect them with other teachers in other parts of the country who have tried different methods of online instruction. That includes coming up with ways to serve gifted and talented students as well as students with special needs.
“These are students that have legal rights to certain services. And if you can’t show up at school and the teacher cannot show up at your home, you have to be very, very creative about how you’re reaching these students.”
In terms of support from the government, Eskelsen-Garcia says while the NEA is grateful for the help that has been passed by congress so far, it is not nearly enough.
“We had asked for some help with the homework gap, the digital divide that existed long before this coronavirus crisis. And we don’t get people to take us seriously. (We are told that the money and technology they are requesting are just unnecessary extras and toys). No, it’s essential. To doing the kinds of homework and research that we expect from kids. So we are still asking for two billion from the federal government that can go out to urban communities and rural communities and economically challenged communities where kids live in dire poverty and help those families with what they need. Help those school districts that want to give kids what they need.”
And as the job description for teachers around the country is being rewritten on the fly, Eskelsen-Garcia has been gratified by the level of innovation and cooperation she’s seen from her members.
“I’ve had teachers ask a million questions. I have not had one teachers say ‘This is unfair. This isn’t in my contract. I’m not going to be doing that.’ They’ve been worried about their students’ health, they been worried about their own health. They don’t want to put anyone at risk. But no one has said ‘that’s not in my contract so I’m not doing this’. Every single teacher that I’ve talked to understands that we’re in a national crisis, understands that we’re the ones keeping kids safe and that we’re giving them a meaningful, educational experience under horrible circumstances.”
Lily Eskelsen-Garcia was named Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989 and is now the President of the National Education Association.