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YF Spotlight: American educators search for common ground on school reopening

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Yahoo Finance takes a deep dive into remote education and how it's impacting teachers and students across America.

Video Transcript

- Chicago Public school teacher Quentin Washington has been teaching remotely since the pandemic began in early 2020.

QUENTIN WASHINGTON: But what I love is, I love to see the kids interact with each other in this virtual space.

- But earlier this month, the music teacher and Chicago native received some good news. He was finally going back to his classroom for in-person learning. Thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union, which Washington is a part of, and the city government, K to 12 educators were finally getting their vaccine shots, allowing the school district to reopen schools that had been closed for months.

QUENTIN WASHINGTON: And my appointment was this afternoon. So I actually just came home from having the first vaccine. But I'm glad to get it. It gives me a certain sense of security. And I think that every teacher deserves to have that before they're forced back into a building.

- But not all teachers across the country have been this fortunate. While Chicago's teachers had their unions fight for them and successfully reach a common ground with other stakeholders, which includes parents and city officials, others haven't had the same success. Since the pandemic first started spreading in the US, many school districts across the country have halted in-person learning, instead offering a fully virtual or a hybrid classroom to millions of K to 12 students.

The lack of in-person learning has been a major pain point for parents, who feel overwhelmed with balancing work and childcare responsibilities. But reopening isn't a simple process. Many teachers and their unions have stressed the need for their safety and well-being.

According to EducationWeek's estimates, as of February 24, 833 active and retired K to 12 educators and personnel have died of COVID-19. It makes sense when 85% of educators in an American Federation of Teachers survey said that they'd go back to school if they were given priority for COVID-19 vaccines. But as of February 22, teachers in 18 states were still not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

This acrimonious dispute over reopenings has pitted many officials, parents, teachers, unions, and workers in K to 12 education in many different states against one another. One of those states is Texas. Jimmy Lee has been in education for 33 years, and is the President of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

JIMMY LEE: And we have been asking the state to push the educators in the state up into the grouping so that they can get the vaccine, those who are willing to take that. And I think the majority of them are, because they want to continue to do what is needed in the classroom.

- On the other side of the country, the pandemic and the debate over reopening has also laid bare the fundamental problems that exist within school systems. In Rochester City's school district, middle school math teacher, Tom Rossiter, said the lack of financial resources has just been frustrating to deal with.

- So my district in particular, in Rochester City schools, realized last year that we were in a dramatic budget shortfall and laid off hundreds of teachers during the year last year. And then we got hit with a pandemic. And March 13 was our last day. And then we didn't have the finances to do a lot of the things that many other schools were able to do.

- The school district is considered to be chronically underfunded and faces possibly more cuts to the system. This will complicate teaching and learning even further, says Rossiter.

TOM ROSSITER: Our technology issues are so significant for all of our students not having access to internet at home and having to do MiFis and personal hotspots that have data limits, so the kids can't share videos and can't be as actively participating in lessons as many other students would be able to.

- Mark Luxemberg, who's also in Rochester, said it felt genuinely frightening to go back to school amid COVID-19 due to his personal illness.

MARK LUXEMBERG: I suffer from three chronic autoimmune diseases. I didn't return to teaching until October 1 because I tried to make an accommodation with my school under the Americans with Disabilities Act to teach fully remote from home. And I was denied that option. And I was scared to death to go back in September. And I took the majority of my sick days before I agreed to come back October 1.

- Teachers in Chicago were able to avoid this specific scenario.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: --that our children will be returning to in-person learning this week.

At long last, CPS has finally reached a tentative agreement, with the Chicago Teachers Union, that opens up the school doors for safe, in-person learning for our pre-K, cluster, and K through 8 students.

- But finding that common ground was a hard-won battle. And it took a lot of commitment on both sides to compromise.

QUENTIN WASHINGTON: I know here in Chicago, one of the reasons that we've had such a hard time is because our school districts feel like they don't have to have those conversations with us. They're the boss. They can tell us what they want us to do and we're just supposed to do it.

So how do we find common ground? It starts with a conversation. It starts with an honest, candid conversation about where we are, where we would like to see ourselves, and what are some of the best ideas of getting us back into that place?

- Meanwhile, at the federal level, the White House continues to push schools to reopen across the country. Back in August, the Trump administration had doubled down on its efforts to reopen schools, holding even a press conference to make their case. During a CNN Town Hall this month, President Biden also said he wanted to reopen schools. He specifically said he wanted to open the majority of K to 8 schools, 5 days a week within his first 100 days. The politicization of the reopening debate has made it much more personal to many.

JIMMY LEE: It is very interesting that politics has influenced and bled over into the public school system. I can see both sides of it. I see some positives. I think the students need to be aware and see that there are people and that we have to learn and we have to try to teach them to be accepting of the fact that there are people who may not believe everything that we believe personally. And that's OK.

- Many experts and parents worry about a possible backslide in children's education due to months of missed in-person learning days. One report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that since 60% of students started the school year fully remote and 20% studied at hybrid, the cumulative learning loss for children could be, quote, "substantial," especially in math, as students may lose 5 to 9 months of learning by the end of this school year. Students of color were even worse off, the report added, as they fall 6 to 12 months behind, as compared to white students falling 4 to 8 months behind. Becky Pringle's National Education Association notes that parents are aware of the challenges teachers face if they were to return to their classrooms, and that there's broader support for unions than publicized widely.

BECKY PRINGLE: Parents, and the larger community, believe in what our teachers have done over this pandemic and actually support our unions speaking up on behalf of our students. I want to be clear about that. So you get the salacious headlines and it's blown up. And I'm not saying it doesn't exist. It does, Reggie. It does exist. But I want to be clear that that's not what's happening in most of our communities.

- And even though it's been a chaotic year for teachers and students, not all was lost.

QUENTIN WASHINGTON: Personally, I would not say that this is a lost year. It has been a peculiar year. It hasn't been life as usual, and that's OK. You know why? Because we're in a pandemic. And we're living through a life-altering event that none of us have ever experienced before and we all hope to never have to experience again.