The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented hardship to our schools, our economy, and our nation’s families—with Native communities and communities of color shouldering a disproportionately heavy burden. Our families and neighborhoods—regardless of race, background, or zip code—are stronger, safer, and healthier when we come together to overcome shared challenges and develop collective solutions. The National Education Association (NEA) is committed to working with school leaders, school board members, families, and community allies to battle injustice, combat inequity, and close opportunity gaps, particularly in this time of crisis.
As districts assess the impacts of COVID-19-related school building closures and plan for what’s next, it is essential that they engage education, health, and community stakeholders. This is the input and feedback that should drive the design of quality instruction and the allocation of resources, personnel, and funding. Each district has unique needs; however, common pressing issues that demand action from all education stakeholders include: (1) ensuring the health and well-being of students and educators in public school buildings; (2) amplifying the voices of educators to lead the way in addressing systemic inequities; and (3) building authentic partnerships with families and communities so that students feel welcome and supported to excel. School systems must be designed for the students of the future and have the agency to pivot and respond to the needs of all students and surrounding communities.
The principles upon which we should base our decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic are the same principles upon which we should envision a new future for schools: equity first and students at the center. School boards are integral to creating these future-forward schools. The NEA’s three recommendations include:
1. Prioritize Science-Based Plans to Protect the Physical and Mental Health and Wellness of School Communities
COVID-19 has underscored the central role that public schools and institutions of higher education play in our society to provide for students’ needs and ensure they are prepared for college, career, and beyond. As district leaders grapple with how to reopen or keep open their school buildings for in-person instruction, they must ensure that science grounds the provision of infrastructure (such as HVAC systems) and processes to prioritize student and educator health and safety. Doing so will cultivate trust in school communities and help to prevent additional disruptive closures and staff shortages due to the pandemic.
For in-person learning environments, it is imperative that students and educators are equipped with personal protective equipment and protocols for disinfection and social distancing to ensure their safety. Cooperative relationships between educators and administrators—and reliance on the expertise of public health officials and medical professionals—are essential to building solutions together and creating procedures to deter COVID-19 transmission, detect cases, notify the public, enforce policies, and minimize disruption to students’ learning.
As you develop processes in your own district, you may find NEA’s All Hands On Deck: Guidance on Reopening School Buildings to be a helpful resource.
2. Embrace and Empower Educator Voice
Districts will benefit from school boards that create standing, permanent infrastructure for educators to share their expertise, review proposed policy, provide feedback, and offer solutions. Collaboration should be authentic and consequential to the bottom line.
School boards with formalized processes to solicit feedback from their educators are better equipped to make well-informed policy decisions. Federal law requires “meaningful consultation” with education stakeholders when making decisions about state plans, accountability systems, and school improvement. Unfortunately, the law as written has not led to formalized, substantive processes that solicit opinions and feedback from those who work closest with our nation’s students. COVID-19 has added an additional hurdle, forcing many districts to create and implement policy as quickly as possible. In some cases, this results in policies that are devoid of educator input and innovation. Educators have extensive expertise in teaching and supporting students, and they should be given the opportunity to fully engage in decision-making and implementation in collaborative environments.
To learn how you can co-create solutions that are in the best interest of students and educators, review NEA’s toolkit, Collaborating in a Crisis.
3. Ensure and Promote Meaningful Family and Community Engagement
School boards stand to benefit greatly from actively and consistently seeking out the input and engagement of stakeholders across differences of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and class. Collaborating to create a shared vision of high-quality education helps foster consensus and develop authentic support for decisions that will encourage meaningful and lasting improvement in our public schools.
The best way to garner community support for plans addressing issues in public education is to be consistent and purposeful about engaging a wide variety of community stakeholders who represent and reflect the demography of the population served by the school, including students and families, businesses, faith-based groups, and organizations that represent Native People, Asian, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern and North African, Multiracial, and Pacific Islander persons.
Schools serve as anchors for communities; their infrastructure underpins programs that have the greatest potential to address inequities and community needs. That’s why the NEA supports Community Schools. They provide an unmatched model for mobilizing students, families, educators, and community members to provide tremendous opportunities for learning and success for students as well as hope and transformation to entire communities. Community schools are uniquely equipped to be adaptable in times of crisis, and they are an evidence-based strategy for equitable school improvement.
In this time of crisis, there is a silver lining: It is an opportunity to intentionally plan together for student success with health, safety, and equity at the forefront.
When you work with families and community representatives in your district, you might consider sharing NEA-endorsed resources designed to support families and keep students engaged.
What’s Next? Advocating for Justice During COVID-19 and Beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to pervade every aspect of students’ lives far past any viable treatment or vaccine and beyond when pundits, politicians, and public health officials declare it is “over.” In response to the growing need for educators to be proactive in engaging with lawmakers and education leaders, the NEA is supporting educators’ advocacy efforts. The NEA is committed to reimagining the future of public schools; here are just a few programs and activities that highlight this commitment:
- The Center for Social Justice (CSJ) advances NEA’s vision of great public schools for all students through professional supports, partnerships, and activism that equips educators to be powerful advocates for the teaching, learning, and living conditions that students and members deserve. CSJ provides guidance and support to grow educator and public school allies’ capacity and strategic action to disrupt and eventually eradicate all forms of oppression in our schools and beyond. The center provides training opportunities on anti-bias, racial and social justice, training minority and women leaders, and creating LGBTQ and gender inclusive schools.
- Leaders for Just Schools (LJS) is a comprehensive, multiyear curriculum that investigates critical concepts in racial and social justice. A network of more than 200 LJS alumni across the country are prepared to assist in increasing the capacity of schools and districts to design plans that ensure, without exceptions, that students have everything they need to grow and thrive. Their insight on the needs of students and families in school communities during and beyond this global crisis is outlined in their report Education Justice Through and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.
- NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists toward achieving education justice in our public schools. Educators and public education allies can find resources to take action on education justice and organize to build power in their communities. NEA EdJustice provides numerous tools to engage in racial and social justice work, including protecting students’ civil rights, education equity for women and girls, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
- The NEA formed the Future Forward Think Tank to lead the NEA in confronting inequity and injustice and overcoming the challenges of COVID-19. The work is ongoing as we identify critical issues and articulate imperatives for addressing them—including ensuring consistent, reliable, and quality learning is available to every student in environments that minimize COVID-19 health risks and protect all students, educators, and their families.
- In an effort to raise awareness around the stark inequalities, the NEA released The Digital Divide and Homework Gap in Your State, a report that details the digital divide in each state and provides policy recommendations to help close it so that we can help our schools reach every student regardless of whether they are in school or at home.
Ready to Take Action Together?
The NEA is here to collaborate with school boards and education and community stakeholders to ensure we rebuild schools with an emphasis on equity and protecting the most vulnerable students through and beyond the global health crisis.
Share your commitment to working with educators, families, and community stakeholders by accessing our sample school board resolution, We Rise Together, which can be customized to demand federal support for our schools, ensure safe conditions, and more.
Christine DonFrancesco, Senior Policy Analyst, Education Policy and Practice, National Education Association