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NEA News

Iowa City Educators Unwavering in their Advocacy for Safe, Just Schools

Through labor-management collaboration, Iowa City educators have maintained a strong voice in district priorities, as NEA President Becky Pringle observed first-hand.
Becky Pringle Iowa City
Published: 09/15/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Despite losing core collective bargaining rights four years ago, the Iowa City Education Association plays a major role in local education decisions.
  2. ICEA helped guide the safe re-opening of schools during the pandemic.
  3. The local also influenced how federal pandemic relief money was used to protect students and educators and advance racial equity.

Early in the pandemic, it was clear that Iowa’s educators were up going to have to play a big role in helping their communities navigate the crisis.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds imposed a reckless approach to resuming in-person instruction and refused to mandate masks in communities with high infection rates, shunning CDC guidelines around even as COVID-19 surged statewide.

In Iowa City, as in many communities across the country, the local educator union took the lead in navigating the many unknowns to bring students and educators safely back to in-person learning.

Becky Pringle
NEA President Becky Pringle Credit: Miranda Meyer

The Iowa City Education Association was able to step up quickly because its leaders have worked to build a collaborative relationship with school district leaders. That allowed educators to have a strong voice in hammering out safety guidelines, determining how federal pandemic relief money would be used, and ensuring that the district would advance social and racial justice initiatives.

NEA President Becky Pringle visited Iowa City on Monday to meet with union and district leaders and learn more about the results of their collaborative work. It was one stop on her nationwide tour, which is focused on how schools can boost racial equity as they emerge from the pandemic.

Keeping Students and Educators Safe

Unfortunately, conditions for students and educators remain particularly precarious as the highly contagious Delta variant circulates.

Protecting the health and safety of everyone in the school community was the shared mission of ICEA and district leaders. Together, they developed COVID safety guidance that goes beyond those issued by the Iowa Department of Health. Provisions include:

  • The district encourages universal masking indoors regardless of vaccination status.
  • Face coverings required on school buses.
  • Protocols are adjusted depending on transmission rates.
  • Ventilation system upgrades to meet CDC requirements.

The union and the school district were also aligned when they joined the Iowa State Education Association in filing a suit against the state in August 2020 for setting potentially hazardous in-person instruction requirements.

NEA strongly supports educators having a voice in pandemic recovery efforts in schools. At a virtual press event on Monday, national and state union leaders spoke out against Gov. Reynolds’ opposition to mask mandates for schools in communities that want them.

NEA is “using every strategy at our disposal to ensure students and educators are safe as they return to in-person learning,” NEA’s Becky Pringle said. “Everything is on the table because at the end of the day if our students aren’t safe, they can’t learn. If our educators aren’t safe, they can’t do the jobs they love educating the students of Iowa.”

NEA President Becky Pringle meets with members of the Iowa City Schools and Iowa City Education Association
NEA President Becky Pringle meets with members of the Iowa City Schools and Iowa City Education Association Credit: Miranda Meyer

Advancing Equity Through Pandemic Recovery

While in Iowa City, Pringle also met with the faculty and staff of the University of Iowa College of Education to discuss how future Iowa educators are being prepared for teaching.

Brady Shutt, a high school social studies educator who serves as president of the Iowa City local, talked about how important union advocacy is in the process of building a great learning and working environment.

Shutt also introduced Pringle to fellows taking part in the Iowa City Community School District’s “Grow Our Own” initiative, which supports educators of color who aspire to become administrators and school leaders. The fellows have the opportunity to serve in building level leadership positions for two school years. They also work to build the district’s capacity in the area of restorative justice practices.

Both the union local and Iowa City Community School District administrators are determined to improve in the area of racial equity. In response to concerns from educators and parents, the district undertook a review of its discipline policies that resulted in a 189-page report released this summer.  

"Everything is on the table because at the end of the day if our students aren’t safe, they can’t learn."

The study found that while Black students make up around 20 percent of enrolled students, they are 60 percent of those students punished through suspensions. Over 80 percent of suspended students are from lower income households, and a third are special education students.

That’s why ICEA advocated for federal funds distributed through the American Rescue Plan be devoted to the Fellows program and ongoing work to change district discipline policies.

The union advocated for ARP money to support a host of meaningful changes to support students and educators, including:

  • Hired 28 Academic Support Specialists (1 per school building) for learning loss and/or enrichment  
  • Hired an additional 6 full-time school nurses. 
  • Hired additional language arts and math teachers at every secondary school to lower class sizes in core classes and provide targeted support for students experiencing learning loss in those subject areas. 
  • Funded summer school in 2021 for every 1st grader who was non-proficient in math or reading, with summer school slots open for non-proficient students from different grade levels as space allowed.  
  • Funded a summer 2021 “Boost” Program at every junior high and every high school for 2 weeks to offer social/emotional learning and academic success skills coaching to rising 7th & 8th graders in junior highs and rising 9th & 10th graders in high schools to build a culture of academic, leadership and social-emotional skills.   
  • Created and funded a Restorative Justice Coordinator position to help the district implement the RJ portions of the comprehensive DEI plan.    
  • Worked with the existing Teacher-Leadership Program to create Equity Ambassador to help the district implement its comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan

As part of her tour, NEA President Pringle has visited California and Kentucky as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York before heading to the Midwest, with stops in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Later this fall, she will visit the southwest.

Bargaining for the Common Good

Together, we can improve student learning and the educational environment, like smaller class size, fewer standardized tests, more recess and art and music classes, and additional counselors.

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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.