As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, with new variants fueling another rise in cases, Texas educators, school employees, students and families are confronting another return to school.
While most Texas students have been in physical classrooms for months, some will return to in-person instruction for the first time since March 2020. With Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to ban school district mask mandates, some families are worried about their child’s safety.
The American Federation of Teachers, in coordination with other national organizations, recently polled parents of public school students. Only 73% said they were comfortable with in-person learning for their child in the fall. But if robust safety precautions and mitigation efforts were in place, that number jumps to 94% of parents.
In response to these concerns, AFT and its Texas affiliate, Texas AFT, have launched a “Back to School for All” campaign that emphasizes the importance of every child returning to our public schools — and doing so safely.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend the continued use of face masks for students and educators in the fall. Families and school employees continue to express a desire for locally controlled mask mandates, as well as upgrades to Texas public schools’ aging HVAC systems and school facilities.
Texas AFT’s 66,000 public school employee members waged a campaign throughout the spring to send billions in federal COVID-19 relief funding directly to school districts. Those same members continue to call on districts to use those funds for investments in safety measures and infrastructure. Prioritizing improvements to HVAC infrastructure is a long-overdue improvement to public school buildings.
Beyond physical safety concerns, returning to in-person instruction for all students will be difficult mentally and emotionally. Those federal dollars can and should be used to support students’ academic, social and emotional recovery through initiatives like the community schools model that offers wraparound services and support for communities.
The pandemic has been a long, traumatic period for students, families, educators and communities. It also has exposed inequities within our schools and our communities. Students need immediate support for academic, social and emotional recovery (as do school employees), but they also need long-term investments in school services.
Returning to in-person school isn’t the end — it’s the beginning. The pandemic has exposed long-standing problems with the “normal” school and societal experience. Texas schools can define a new normal, one that affords respect to public school employees and provides children with the freedom to thrive, in and out of the classroom.
Visions of safe, equitable, fully funded schools are at odds with the current reality of Texas politics. Decision-making driven by standardized test scores, white-washed curriculum or unchecked school privatization is not the path to a reimagined public education system.
Winning an equitable future for public education requires coordination and cooperation from whole communities, a reality at the root of AFT’s back-to-school campaign. You can find more information on the campaign on Texas AFT’s website.
“We have a rare chance to seed a renaissance in American public education,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a speech this May. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to reopen and recover, but to reimagine our schools in a way that makes every public school a place where parents want to send their children, educators and support staff want to work and students thrive.”