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NEA News

Educators Organize to Resist Unsafe Reopening Plans

Educators are being handed reopening plans that require them to be in their classrooms—and they are resisting.
Four teachers pose in #RedForEd T-shirts
Published: 09/07/2020

Key Takeaways

  1. Members of NEA, the largest labor union in the country with 3 million members, are continuing to organize and work toward the strength, success, and safety of the country.
  2. Educators who worry about the health risks of returning to school buildings during a pandemic are using their collective voice to start the school year remotely.
  3. NEA's Education Summer program brings people together over the summer to brush up on their organizing tactics and then apply their new set of tools on real-world problems.

For more than 125 years, Americans have celebrated Labor Day, honoring the collective efforts of workers who fought for better wages, reasonable hours, and safer working conditions. The labor movement also led efforts to stop child labor, offer health benefits, provide compensation to workers who were injured on the job, and more.

Today, members of NEA, the largest labor union in the country with 3 million members, are continuing to organize and work toward the strength, success, and safety of the country. This time, it’s a matter of “life and death,” says Lawrence Brinson, a high school social studies teacher in Charlotte, N.C.

Already six months into the coronavirus pandemic and there are more than 6 million cases and more than 187,000 deaths. Will school reopening plans for in-person learning and hybrid models cause more cases? Members of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators (CMAE) didn’t want to find out and organized to push their district to start remotely.

The Problem

Weeks before school was scheduled to start, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper proposed three different reopening plans for school districts to choose from: A) in-person learning; B) a hybrid model; and C) start the school year remotely.

School board members from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools picked B, hybrid. This was problematic.

Educators worried about the health risks of returning to school buildings during a pandemic whose spread remains uncontrolled, and on top of that, “school board members had invited several doctors and other people who could give them some guidance on returning to school,” explains Brinson, president of the CMAE. “However, none of the speakers at the meeting included educators.”

He adds, “It’s hard enough to get the first day of school right—on a normal year—and then you add all these protocols that no one has practiced. Educators like to know what’s going to happen: How will students line up in the hallway… sharpen pencils… turn in papers? This might seem small to some people, but building routine is important for students and educators.”

Additional questions surfaced, too: What’s going to happen if someone gets something wrong…if someone doesn’t socially distance…or isn’t feeling well? Do they get put in a separate room, potentially violating HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy laws? Who’s going to pick up the student, and has that person been exposed?

There were too many questions and not enough answers. Educators needed to be heard. “Decisions were made at the district level that would have put teachers and students at risk,’ says Melissa Easley, a middle school science teacher, explaining that the district was rushing into in-person learning when the county had the highest COVID rates in the state.

One of Many Approaches

When educators organize, they cultivate people’s capacity to do and be more—making meaningful changes in the policies and practices that impact students, educators, schools, and communities—and that’s what members of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators did. Easley and about a dozen other members launched a grassroots campaign to organize for a safer plan, and their organizing efforts took a life of their own.

One of their first actions was to develop a survey to underscore how educators really felt about the district’s decision. They then shared these concerns with local media to “express to the community that we were aware of  the impact remote instruction would have on education, but that educators must do what is best for all and protect our students,” shares Easley.  

From there, the group organized other CMAE members and school based employees to speak at a local school board meeting. Many would be first-time speakers, and to help them prepare, a virtual “prep meeting” was organized to coach these new voices. Of the 40 people who spoke that evening, 32 were members of the local association. Other actions included a letter-writing campaign and a car rally.

Every membership category was included in these organizing efforts. There were bus drivers and teacher assistants, social workers and counselors, education support professionals, and administrators.

After the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board heard from educators, the following week, they held an emergency meeting, reversed their decision, and voted to reopen with remote learning.

“In our state, you don’t necessarily see a lot of school boards or legislatures reversing their course. This was a big win,” says Lawrence Brinson.

Additionally, educators will now be in the room when the school board is making decisions, and association members were able to add a health component to school board’s safety committee, which would identify unhealthy or dangerous blind spots in school buildings.

“This is the kind of work that trained, passionate organizers at the rank and file level can do,” Easley says, “which is what we want every member and potential member to see—that every member can make meaningful and systemic change…and a group of members have made a real difference in their community.”

NEA Adds More Support

This summer, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators was one of 118 local associations to participate in NEA’s Education Summer (EdSummer) program. Traditionally, the program brings people together over the summer to brush up on their organizing tactics and then apply their new set of tools on real-world problems.

Participants, for example, learn how to door-knock, prepare for school visits, hold meaningful one-on-one conversations, and plan community events. With no end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic and for safety measures, this year’s training happened virtually.

“This program was a true benefit for our local. It has allowed members to prepare beyond the summer months into the year,” explains Brinson.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.