- Officials agreed that collaboration between parents, schools and policy makers is necessary for accelerated learning in the wake of the pandemic and for safer, healthier schools.
- The Biden Administration is funding millions in grants to address the mental health crisis among young people so that they can focus more on learning.
- First Lady Jill Biden addressed the town hall participants in a recording: "You make miracles every day."
As a new school year starts two and a half years into the pandemic, there are many questions about how to handle health and safety for our students and staff. Educators and parents want to know more about monkeypox, the latest variants of COVID-19 and the new boosters, and how to handle the ongoing mental health challenges more and more students and educators face.
To answer those questions, the White House convened a Back-to-School Town Hall with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, NEA President Becky Pringle, and AFT President Randi Weingarten.
The town hall was held in a Q&A format with Pringle and Weingarten asking questions from their members around the country and directing them to the federal leaders in Washington, D.C.
Cardona kicked off the session by welcoming the educator and community participants, thanking them for their commitment to students, and applauding them for their resilience as another school year begins with more challenges as well as opportunities in the month ahead.
“It’s time for a fresh start, it’s time to build on the progress we know students are making even as we understand that COVID hurt our students’ academic achievement,” he said. “We have a lot to do.”
To accomplish everything, however, requires intentional collaboration between his department, other federal and local policymakers, educators and community members. Without intentional collaboration and decision making, real progress cannot be made, Cardona noted.
The panel discussion opened up with a question by AFT President Randi Weingarten: who asked about the status of air quality in schools, who should educators speak to about improvements, and how can they best advocate for upgraded ventilation systems.
Jha (White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator): I think we should take a quick step back to remind everybody of the incredible importance of ventilation and filtration for COVID…and all airborne diseases. High quality ventilation and filtration improve student performance in schools because we do better when we breathe clean air, which is one of the reasons the Biden Administration prioritized $122 billion for K-12 education to make these improvements. Educators can get individualized consultations from the Departments of Energy and Education for school ventilation systems. We want to make sure the resources and capabilities are available and that we are accessible.
Walensky (CDC Director): It’s not just about COVID. [Ventilation] helps with other respiratory viruses and asthma as well. We have a School Ventilation Tool on our website where you can calculate how well your system works in your schools.
New CDC COVID-19 Guidance for Schools
NEA President Becky Pringle, who pointed out that NEA.org now includes a dedicated section on health and safety, then asked about the new CDC guidance on COVID and how we can continue to protect students, especially immunocompromised students.
Walensky: Our guidance has changed as we have updated the science and as the virus has changed. Overarching, our guidance recommends prevention and that starts with vaccination. Our guidance recommends ventilation, staying home when you are sick, testing, masking, and caring for those at higher risk.
[CDC recommends] that anyone who chooses, should be able to wear a mask regardless of the amount of [community infection] and be supported to do so. We recommend flexible, non- punitive and non-stigmatizing masking policies. If community levels are medium or high, we recommend that those with high risk where a mask or respirator. Schools that have high risk students should make the reasonable accommodations necessary to access in person learning.
New Boosters Updated for Omicron
Weingarten asked about the updated vaccine and what it means for Americans. Later that same evening, the CDC would approve the new COVID-19 boosters designed to target Omicron and other variants. Learn more at How Do I Find a COVID-19 Vaccine? | CDC].
Jha: Too many kids aren’t vaccinated at all. It is worth remembering that vaccination continues to be the most powerful tool we have to prevent serious illness. Kids are less likely to get very sick, but [they can] Some end up in the ICU. Vaccinated kids almost never end up in the hospital. Encouraging children of all ages to get vaccinated is very important.
The key feature of the new vaccine booster is that it has Omicron as part of its formula so it’s matched to the virus that is out there. It offers a much higher degree of protection. Everyone 12 and over will be eligible. If you got a booster recently or have been infected recently, it’s worth waiting, but if not, it’s a great new vaccine.
Walensky: Just so you know how important opening schools is to me, there is very little I would book [other than this townhall] between the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and my recommendation. (The CDC recommended the updated vaccines based on the outcome of the ACIP meeting later that evening.)
The new Pfizer vaccine will be for those aged 12 and over, the Moderna for those over age 18. Boosters will be coming to younger students soon.
If you look over the pandemic, the leading causes of death of children under 18, and in any age backet, COVID is one of the top five and it is the top infectious cause of death for our young children. Prevention is critically important. To be eligible, you need to have a primary series.
Disproportionate Impact of Pandemic on People of Color
Pringle asked how schools and educators could help communities of color who have been disproportionately impact by the pandemic.
Walensky: Racism is a serious health threat in our communities and in schools. Unless we address equity, this is going to be a continuing challenge in the future. As we turn the page, we must make sure students don’t get further behind. We need to understand that health disparities and student disruptions and adverse experiences as interconnected problems that schools can help resolve. Closing the schools can’t bet the answer. We don’t recommend school closures.
Cardona: In this country the disparities have almost become normalized and we have become numb to them. We must not to go back to the way it was [before the pandemic]. We need to do better. We need to make sure that American Rescue Plan dollars go to the [students and schools] most impacted...Addressing inequities is up to all of us.
First Lady Addresses Educators
First Lady Jill Biden, an NEA member and lifelong educator, delivered a recorded message for the town hall participants, NEA and AFT members and educators from all over the country about halfway through the program.
“I feel lucky to be part of the tiny miracles that happen in our classrooms every day,” she said. “But this job isn’t easy. There are moments where we feel tired and frustrated. But what you do matters — to your students, to communities, to all of us. You are changing lives. You are guiding the next generation. You make miracles every day.”
The 90-minute session also included questions about monkeypox risks, mental health struggles, accelerated learning opportunities, and educator shortages. The following are the key points the federal officials made on the topics.
Monkeypox spreads very differently from COVID, Jha said, and risk to students and staff is very low. But if you see a rash, report it, don’t ignore it, and stay home if you’re sick.
Walensky reiterated that the risk of spreading monkeypox in school settings is low. If a student or staff member does come in with a rash, that school should partner with local health departments and facilities to diagnose the rash. If it is monkeypox, contact tracing should be conducted without any stigmatizing. The CDC wants people to become aware, not alarmed, and never to stigmatize anyone with a case of monkeypox. For more, visit the CDC webpage on monkeypox.
Mental Health Struggles
Cardona said we must challenge the very high student- to- counselor ratios and acknowledge that mental health is a basic human need that we should address regularly, just as we feed hungry students.
HHS Secretary Beccera reminded viewers about a new national number anyone can call who is in crisis – 988. Just as 911 is used for emergencies, 998 is a lifeline if for anyone having suicidal thoughts or other acute mental health problems.
The secretary also noted that HHS also awarded $40.22 million in youth mental health grants throughout the month of August, including $5.3 million from American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding intended to address pandemic-related stressors that have increased mental health conditions among younger Americans. HHS also announced $47.6 million in new grant funding opportunities developed from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
Hilighlights from the grants:
- Project Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education (AWARE), to develop a sustainable infrastructure for school-based mental health programs and services.
- Statewide Family Networks, to enhance the capacity of statewide mental health family-controlled organizations to engage with family members/primary caregivers who are raising children, youth, and young adults with serious emotional disturbance (SED)
- Mental Health Awareness Training grants (MHAT), to prepare and train individuals including school personnel, emergency first responders, law enforcement, veterans, armed services members and their families to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental disorders, particularly serious mental illness (SMI) and/or serious emotional disturbances (SED); establish linkages with school- and/or community-based mental health agencies to refer individuals with the signs or symptoms of mental illness to appropriate services; train emergency services personnel, law enforcement, fire department personnel, veterans, and others to identify persons with a mental disorder and employ crisis de-escalation techniques; and educate individuals about resources that are available in the community for individuals with a mental disorder.
- Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Program, to improve outcomes for children from birth to age 12 with significant risk of developing, showing early signs of, or having been diagnosed with a mental illness, serious emotional disturbance (SED) and/or symptoms that may be indicative of developing SED in children.
Accelerating Learning in Wake of COVID Closures
To give teachers the time necessary to help students make up what was lost during the pandemic, the officials agreed that more mental health staff and other staff that support student needs outside the classroom are available., allowing classroom teachers to focus on academics. Other staff must be available to support other needs, including specialized academic services such as reading instruction.
Plans for improvement and accelerated learning need to focus on equity as well as have stakeholder engagement, Cardona added.
Ending the Educator Shortage
Cardona said bringing back and keeping educators in the field starts with professional pay and respect. They must also have the agency to do their jobs and make decisions on how best to lead the learning in their classrooms. Grow Your Own programs work and must be supported as well. Pre-service teachers should be paid. Everything must help elevate the teaching profession.
Beccera says HHS will partner with Cardona the Department of Education to help make those who have committed to teaching be lifelong educators by helping with burnout and providing in-school access to services to help kids come to school ready to learn instead of carrying a lot of trauma into the classroom.
Find more resources on school health and wellness at nea.org/healthy-schools. The entire town hall can also be viewed on C-SPAN.