Opinion: In trying times, put students' needs first

Paula Herbart

With the closure of schools due to the coronavirus outbreak, parents are faced with many challenges over the coming weeks. While I can’t hope to solve all of them, I can provide my expertise as an educator to help weather this crisis and provide advice and resources for parents to keep their students on a good path while at home.

First and foremost, we must take this crisis seriously and slow the spread of COVID-19 — which is why MEA fully supports the order to close schools and asks everyone of every age to fully heed the expertise of public health officials. Attention to cleanliness and sanitization mixed with social distancing is the key to slowing this outbreak and ending this crisis.

As jarring as this is for us as adults, we also must remember that this situation can be even scarier for a 10-year-old. The changes we’re all facing have been swift to put it mildly, and our students had little to no time to process this with their teachers and other educators they’ve worked with all year.

The MEA fully supports the order to close schools and asks everyone of every age to fully heed the expertise of public health officials.

Keep an open line of communication with your student. Keep them informed as best you can, understanding that every child will react differently and needs different levels of information. Many educators are making themselves available to students electronically to help with continued education — or just to talk. Reach out to the educators in your life and ask for their help and advice.

It’s also helpful to set up daily routines and schedules for children. Limiting screen time, ensuring students get outdoors — while maintaining social distance — and getting adequate sleep are keys all parents should consider.

For every student, continuing to read is essential. Setting aside time to practice reading skills on a daily basis should be part of whatever routine you develop.

Obviously, online learning opportunities exist, but they’re never going to fully replace the value of face-to-face education with students. I’m so proud of educators across the state — from elementary through higher education — who have scrambled to provide distance learning alternatives as best we can. There are lots of resources out there (including some we’ve posted at www.mea.org) to keep students engaged academically — for guidance, contact your school district and teachers.

Online resources won’t work for all our students though, especially those who have special education needs or don’t have access to computers or the internet due to poverty or living in remote locations that don’t have broadband. Note that some internet providers are offering free access during this outbreak to help families who need it — give them a call to see if there’s a way to get connected.

Another issue for students living in poverty is access to food — something many rely on schools to provide for two meals a day. Michigan has received a waiver from the federal government to continue serving meals to students who receive free or reduced lunch.  Many districts are expanding that to allow pickup of meals for any students who need them. Contact your local school district for distribution details.

This is just one example of how all school employees — not only teachers — are putting the needs of students first. Food service workers preparing meals. School custodians focusing on cleaning buildings to ensure they’re safe. Bus drivers and other staff are even helping with meal delivery in some areas. 

We’re all in this together. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank my fellow school employees — and everyone else engaged in public service at this difficult time — for what you’re doing to help our students and our communities.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.