Opinion: Teachers say we need key steps to reopen schools

Paula Herbart

One of the most important decisions our state will make in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic is when and how to safely reopen our public schools.

MEA recently completed a landmark survey on COVID-19’s impact on public education, with more than 15,000 responses from educators across Michigan. Teachers and support professionals are understandably concerned about restarting school prematurely without the proper public health safeguards in place.

In particular, educators are concerned for the health and well-being of their students, their colleagues and families at home — knowing that students often carry illnesses home with them from school to family members.

Overwhelming majorities believe key steps are necessary to safely return to in-person learning:

► 91% think smaller class sizes will be necessary to enforce social distancing.

► 89% believe standards need to be set and enforced regarding future outbreaks of illness and required closure of buildings.

► 75% said taking temperatures of students and staff entering school buildings and careful tracking of illnesses will be essential.

 ► 74% believe schools should provide and require usage of masks and other personal protective equipment for employees — 68% believe so for students.

In this May 14, 2020 file photo, a child walks in her classroom as others wait outside at the Vaucanson school, in Paris.

I was honored to be appointed to Gov. Whitmer’s Return To School Advisory Council, along with many outstanding educators, students, parents and health experts from across the state. In the weeks ahead, members of the council will be working hard to make sure input like this is heeded as we chart a path back to school.

The governor understands the importance of not only including educators and health experts in these decisions, but parents and students as well. I have heard from many parents who are reluctant to send their children back into school buildings without assurances of their safety.

As for students, we have seen following school shootings — especially the brave high schoolers who stood up after the Parkland massacre — they can have a capacity for leadership that some adults often lack. We need their voices and their insights now more than ever.

Addressing the safety and other critical needs to reopen schools will require investment in our public schools at the state and federal levels. Pandemic-driven revenue shortfalls are threatening education funding here in Michigan and across the country.

At the federal level, we have seen massive bailouts for airlines, banks and other large corporate industries — our students and schools deserve no less consideration. That is why MEA and other allies are calling on Congress to approve $175 billion for states to maintain quality public education and address the additional costs of reopening safely.

On top of financial and safety concerns, MEA’s survey also revealed another potential crisis: nearly a third of educators said COVID-19 was causing them to think about leaving public education or retiring early.

In light of the dire shortage of educators pre-pandemic, additional drain on the profession will only exacerbate that problem. If just a fraction of that total decide to leave — 8% already say they are doing so — there will be thousands of openings this fall and too few educators to fill them.

This underscores why policymakers must ask school employees when and how to reopen schools safely. If educators are not key players in the decision-making process, they will be less likely to return to the classroom.

While there is great pressure to reopen the economy, the economy cannot fully reopen without our public schools. Schools cannot reopen safely until students, parents and educators feel safe going back into classrooms and buildings.

Education is essential, but health and safety must come first. Let that be the guiding principle when considering how and when to reopen Michigan public schools.

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.