- Educators and students have persevered and have enjoyed successes despite the pandemic.
- Stress and challenges are just as present this year as they were during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.
- Pringle and union leaders continue to work to support members by advocating for funding and other solutions to ongoing challenges.
NEA President Becky Pringle’s national Joy, Justice, and Excellence Tour crossed paths with US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s “Return to School Tour,” at Sundling Junior High School in Palatine, Illinois September 20.
Cardona’s tour across the Midwest is showcasing and celebrating how schools are safely returning to in-person instruction while acknowledging the ongoing challenges students and teachers face from COVID-19, like the surge in the Delta variant and continuing quarantines.
Sundling, which is also one of 18 Illinois schools to be named a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School, serves as a model of how schools across the U.S. can remain open by making safety a top priority, Cardona said.
“I was honored to join Education Secretary Miguel Cardona at Sundling Junior High School, in Palatine, Illinois, where Secretary Cardona recognized the school’s work in closing the social, emotional, and academic learning gaps by awarding the school with a National Blue Ribbon,” Pringle said.
While touring the school with Cardona as well as Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, Pringle said she was inspired by what she saw and heard: students excited about the new school year, being back in school and focused on learning, and educators who have gone above and beyond for their students, focused on keeping them safe, focused, and inspired.
“The whole school community is working together to help all their students thrive,” Pringle said.
Following the visit, Pringle met with NEA members and local leaders of the Illinois Education Association to discuss the innovative ways educators are serving students during and coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the union is supporting members in their work.
“We’re so happy Secretary Cardona and President Pringle could come to Illinois and celebrate the success of the students and staff at Sundling Junior High School,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. “The last 18 months has been difficult for educators and for students, too. So, to be recognized in this way, at this time, really shows the hard work and dedication that’s been done by all here. And, as an organization, IEA is especially thrilled that President Pringle is taking the time to meet with our members who are in the trenches every day. We’ve said all along that the best place for students to be is in the classroom, as long as it’s safe. But, that doesn’t always come easy. So, for President Pringle to come and listen to our teachers, paraprofessionals, transportation workers and others who are living this experience, it means a lot. We’re thankful to her and, I’m sure President Pringle would agree, we’re all very thankful to them and their good and dedicated work.”
Illinois Members Share Struggles with Class Size, Stress
Pringle’s conversation with the Illinois educators focused on mental health and equity.
Evelyn Schneider, Vice President of Glenbard Education Association shared that they are focused on relationship building but that it has been very challenging this year with class sizes of more than 32 students.
“Meeting the social and emotional needs of this many students and getting the content covered is causing stress for the kids and the adults,” she said.
On top of the educational stress, there is the situational stress of the ongoing pandemic, Schneider said. Though the majority of parents are in favor of masks in schools, there are a few vocal families who publicly rail against school mask mandates[J , there is anger over having to quarantine, and there are students acting out in the troubling ways as a result of mounting stress. It all becomes quickly overwhelming, Schneider said.
“We don’t have time to unpack the trauma of what we are seeing,” she said. “We need to practice self- care and create balance, but we need more tools to help us do that.”
Mike Williamson, president of the Local Education Association of District 300 in northern Illinois agreed that the trauma that students are experiencing this year is as concerning as it was during the height of the pandemic. Even with kids masked, he said, you can see the stress in their eyes, from students as young as kindergarten all the way to high school. The question is whether they need deeper, ongoing interventions or if they are lacking socialization skills from a pandemic year and will learn their way out of the situational stress.
Adding to the burden shouldered by schools this fall is the lack of support professionals and shortages across the country.
“The ESPs just aren’t there this year because of low pay,” Williamson said. “Educators are struggling to figure this out. There are a lot of open questions.”
Pringle was impressed by the work the leaders are doing to support their members during these times.
“Hearing their passion for helping their students was so moving,” she said.
Sharing Stories Builds Strength and Community
Pringle applauded her fellow educators for taking the time to gather together and share their stories with her and each other because it is in community, she said, where we grow, gather strength and get inspired.
“Whenever I am in the company of proud professionals and strong unionists and racial and social just patriots like you, I am never more proud to be an educator,” Pringle said. “Especially during these past 18 months as you and your colleagues do what you always do to step up for our students and families. Thank you for your energy, activism and courage.”
Pringle’s stop in Illinois is part of a cross-country tour to engage and encourage educators, families and communities to build a more racially and socially just and equitable democracy. From every region in the U.S. she is advocating for masking, vaccines and testing for COVID-19, but also for more funding to reduce class sizes, increase pay for educators, including support professionals, and to bring in more mental health staff to help schools cope with the overwhelming stress of recovering from the global pandemic.