When the time came to return to school this fall, Shalanda Gainey of Redford said her two daughters felt a range of emotions that many parents and students can relate to.
“They’re happy, but they’re also scared,” Shalanda told the group of more than a dozen parents and caregivers who gathered recently for United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Parent Roundtable with the U.S. Department of Education.
Top education and health officials are touring the Midwest as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, which aims to reopen schools across the U.S. Held at the Southfield Public Schools District administration building, the roundtable offered a chance for parents and caregivers from school districts across the region to discuss efforts to safely return students to the classroom after more than a year of virtual or hybrid learning.
Dr. Cameron Webb, senior policy advisor for equity, White House COVID-19 Response Team; Kevin Lima, special assistant, Office of Communications and Outreach; and Anna Hartge, special assistant, Office of the Secretary answered questions and shared their thoughts on school safety measures, vaccinations, teacher shortages, and more.
For Shalanda, whose second and fourth-graders saw her sick with COVID-19 for more than three months, the fear of catching the virus is especially high. She was pleased to hear from Dr. Webb that a vaccine may soon be approved for 5- to 11-year-olds, and that the Department of Education is taking note of the toll the ongoing pandemic has taken on students and their parents.
“We had to be mom, teacher, nurse, wife, employee, substitute teacher, everything. It was a lot. It’s still a lot,” Shalanda told the group. As a member of United Way’s Parent Community of Practice, Shalanda has been connected to resources to help her better support her children with a focus on academic success and mental wellness.
At a recent parent roundtable with the U.S. Department of Education, Shalanda Gainey shared difficulties her family has faced during the pandemic
“Parent voice is extremely important,” Southfield Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Green. “We have been very intentional in our COVID-19 response, communicating with our students and parents regularly. This roundtable is a perfect forum to continue those conversations, and also hear from other districts and experts. The conversation was so rich and reflective. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
Southfield is home to Stevenson Elementary, one of five United Way Community Schools, which reimagine schools as a community hub where districts, families and community partners work collaboratively to ensure families’ basic needs are met, and barriers to students’ academic success are eliminated.
“Our students are a part of families, our families are a part of communities, our communities are a part of the state, and so on,” Green said. “No element stands alone. Each element has to work together and support the other.”
Dr. Webb emphasized the importance of a whole-community approach to defeating COVID-19 and combatting misinformation. The Biden administration is leaning heavily on community and faith-based leaders to build awareness about the pandemic, and to promote vaccine safety and effectiveness.
“It’s up to us to protect our community because we got hit the hardest by COVID,” Dr. Webb said. The vaccine is our direct response to the longstanding disparities in our healthcare system. This is the legacy of Tuskegee in that we are not going to have treatment and cures withheld from us. That’s the story we need to start to tell really effectively at the community level.”
During the roundtable, several parents raised concerns over vaccine safety for children.
“Safety is the number one concern. One child dying is one too many,” Dr. Webb said, with the room erupting in agreement. “All the data points to vaccines being safe and effective. The data that also shows me that one out of every 20 children who gets COVID will experience lingering symptoms beyond 28 days, causing changes in the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain. I’m concerned about the long-term impact of that on young, growing bodies.”
He added that children are also more likely to have asymptomatic COVID, which can be a risk to elderly and immunocompromised caregivers.
“We are never going to get our arms around this pandemic without young people being vaccinated as well,” Dr. Webb said.
Parents and experts also discussed the need for layered mitigation strategies including cleaning, social distancing, and contact tracing to keep kids and teachers from getting sick.
Celestine Sanders believes we need to restructure our educational system.
Many parents also addressed issues stemming from virtual learning, including how to best ensure student learning remains on track and recover from any learning loss they experienced.
“We need to restructure our educational system or we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting, and it’s not working, said Celestine Sanders, the grandmother of and 8th grader and a 5th grader at Southfield Public Schools. “We tried the virtual – it works for some but not for all – one size does not fit all.”
“There will always be a COVID,” Celestine added. “We need more training for teachers on virtual so that they know how to teach virtually if they need to.”
In Southfield, which was the first district in the state to go fully virtual, teachers and administrators have already overhauled the entire curriculum and spent the first few weeks of school focusing on rebuilding a sense of community.
Crystal Sanford-Brown, vice president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, who has two grandchildren who attend Southfield Public Schools said it’s important for everyone to recognize that they have a stake in their community and in the future of education.
“When we attend events like this, we are representing ourselves and those that trust us. It’s an opportunity to gain knowledge and share knowledge. Knowledge is only valuable when you share it.”
Crystal Sanford-Brown said it’s important for everyone to recognize they have a stake in their community.