Even as schools throughout our nation face the possibility that they will continue to stay physically closed when the 2020-2021 schoolyear launches, the reality is schools, either face-to-face or virtually, cannot ignore the tremendous changes afoot throughout our nation. That realization was at the heart of the National Education Association Tele-Town Hall:

NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, joined by NAACP President Derrick Johnson, spoke very directly about health and race. As the nation’s largest professional employee organization with three million members working at every educational level, with a direct presence in more than 14,000 communities throughout the nation, the National Education Association serves as a powerful voice on the issues of our time.

After extensive praise for the legions of teachers who have stepped up during the pandemic with virtual lessons, organizing efforts to reach technologically insecure kids and more, Pringle, a middle school science teacher, with 31 years of classroom experience, who became NEA Vice President in 2014, pointed to the horrific racial realities the pandemic exposed. 

“This crisis laid bare for every community member, every educator and every policymaker just how serious the inequities are in all of our social systems,” she explained. “All are interacting with each other to compound the inequities for our students, from education to healthcare, to housing, to economics, all of those systems are impacting our students’ ability to learn.” 

As schools prepare for reopening, the NEA created “All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings” as a resource for educators, school district leaders, community leaders, parents, families and policymakers available at NEA.org/Reopening. 

Health is understandably at the forefront of the NEA’s missive. Johnson, whose wife serves as the chairman of the school board for their district in Mississippi which their own kids attend, loudly applauded NEA’s leadership

“One of the things that really resonates is the need to follow public health experts in terms of how to make sound decisions to protect children, the staff, and the community,” he shared. “That’s really important for [people like] me who live in a Southern state where, for multiple reasons, some of the policymakers are seeking to advance political conversation, and not a conversation that will protect the health and welfare of our young people in our community.”

While a record number of white Americans are embracing the latest push against this nation’s blatant racial injustice, Rachella Dravis, a NEA leader participating from Denmark, Iowa, provided a much-needed reminder that everybody isn’t onboard. Her mere announcement of the town hall, she shared, was met with “All Lives Matter” pushback through such statements as ‘I’m not racist, ‘Our family worked hard to get where we are, ‘We are not white privilege’ and ‘I raised my kids to not see color.’ 

Dravis wanted to know “what approach” schools could take to create a culture supporting Black lives. After thanking Dravis for “stepping up and leaning into this moment,” Pringle strongly stated that “Black Lives Matter [is] a necessary proclamation in a society that continues the discriminatory treatment, inequitable resource allocation, systemic economic inequality, and just the respect for the life and humanity of Black people. It’s a call to action based on what we know has to be done, which is to combat and counter attacks of violence on Black people. And we can’t turn our heads anymore, we can’t say that anymore as we witness, just in this short period of time, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, where we could not look away from that brutal killing. We have to stand up and call that out.”

Recalling conversations she, herself, had with educators echoing these sentiments, Pringle emphasized the important role educators must play in this fight. “It is your professional responsibility to do something when you see the disparate impact,” she said. “Even if you don’t believe you are creating it, if you know it, it is your responsibility to do something about it.” To assist educators and others, Pringle directed participants to the NEA’s injustice site.

“We have a whole series of resources on Black Lives Matters in schools, so they can talk about it from their space and in the world around education and why it is so important that we make this specific proclamation,” she noted. “It’s not about diminishing anyone else. It’s about recognizing that Black people for far too long, since the original sin of slavery, have been subjected to brutality and inequality, discrimination at levels higher than any other group.”

Due to technical difficulties and a prior commitment, Johnson was not present at the end of the town hall. Pringle, however, didn’t miss a beat. Emphasizing Johnson’s earlier point about taking political action, Pringle stressed to participants that, “It’s absolutely critical, in this moment in time, that we are all collectively speaking up for our students and our families in our communities.”

“I’m going to direct you right now to educationvotes.nea.org because Derrick [Johnson] is correct: elections matter,” she continued. Education and elections matter. “We have to make sure that we have policymakers and appointed officials who care about our kids, who care about their communities, and have the will to do something about what’s happening in them right now.”

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