40 Ways your Union has been there for educators, students, and schools in a strange and difficult year.
November 19, 2020
November 19, 2020
By Tom Allen
This unprecedented time of COIVD has called for the VEA and its members to step up in perhaps bigger ways than ever before. Your Union has had to be there for members, and members for one another. Times of crisis tend to bring out the real character of an organization and its people, and what we’ve seen has been inspiring.
Here, then, are the Top 40 ways your Union has been there for you so far.
Safety is, indeed, job one. We’ve made it clear, from the very first appearance of the coronavirus here in Virginia, that the health and safety of our students and educators was our top priority. We haven’t wavered.
From the top. VEA’s president, Dr. James J. Fedderman, made sure the “health and safety is most important” message got out loud and clear by publishing op-ed essays to that effect in both the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, which is the state’s largest newspaper, and in the Virginia Mercury, an online news service.
The ink wasn’t even dry…The same day (March 13) that Governor Northam announced that Virginia’ public schools would close for two weeks, we shared a new CDC Coronavirus Fact Sheet with local leaders for distribution to members. Next, we began revamping our website and formed a COVID-19 Response Team.
We jump-started local communication. By training local leaders on using a communications tool called Action Network, we helped make the sharing of information and resources locally a much more streamlined process.
VEA field staff was there, 24-7. Our UniServ staff has always been one of our organization’s greatest strengths. When COVID hit, UniServ Directors immediately had a live spreadsheet going to monitor the situation across the state, while also advocating for members with school leaders and local governing bodies. UDs also kept local leaders up-to-the-minute and continue to be steady, reliable sources of support, information, and representation.
UD help was not just global; it was individual, too. UDs helped numerous members, from intervening when educators were asked to handle high-risk tasks to helping members file for leave or retirement, and pushing for personal protection equipment (PPE), mental health supports, and necessary technology, health and cleaning resources.
Local leaders stepped up. Members of local associations boldly spoke truth about safety and health to school and community leaders, successfully advocating for caution and a slow, well-thought-out return to school. Decisions continue to be made locality by locality, and VEA members, backed by field and headquarters staff, are speaking clearly on behalf of students and colleagues—and being heard.
Five big ones. By week two of the crisis, VEA headquarters had provided a list of five crucial questions local leaders could be asking their superintendents as plans were made. The questions dealt with areas like continuity of learning, evaluations, employment decisions, and protections for non-contract employees, and were chosen because those decisions are made on the local, not state, level.
We asked you. VEA surveyed members early in the COVID crisis, to see how you were doing and what you might need. What you told us, which is no surprise to anyone who knows educators, is that your primary concern at the moment is the welfare and learning of your students. We’ve worked to be responsive to those needs since.
We got you answers in a time of great uncertainty. VEA’s website was revamped to include a large section of COVID resources, including a comprehensive list of answers to frequently-asked questions.
You heard from your lawyer. Dena Rosenkrantz, VEA’s Director of Legal Services, appeared on two Facebook Live sessions and in other forums to answer members’ questions on topics including safety, health protection, keeping up with your responsibilities while caring for your own children or other family members, student confidentiality, unemployment benefits, and specific COVID issues, like mask use and underlying health conditions.
Help with what you’re doing today. NEA has created a website called Educating Through Crisis, chock-full of information on your rights, digital supports, meeting the needs of families and students, protecting your own health—and even some encouragement. Find it all at educatingthroughcrisis.org.
We provided access. VEA arranged virtual meetings with Gov. Northam, Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, and Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, giving members the chance to offer input directly to top state decision makers as COVID responses were being developed.
That access was ongoing. With Secretary Qarni, a series of eight online meetings were held, each focused on a specific school reopening topic and each featuring a different lineup of Union members.
That access remains ongoing. VEA leaders and staff members remain in touch with Governor Northam, Secretary Qarni, Superintendent Lane, and General Assembly leaders, giving Union members an ongoing source of input and influence.
We put you in position to make a difference. VEA members served on a number of groups formed to create school COVID policy, including the Virginia Department of Education’s School COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, the Governor’s Work Group, and other groups created by the governor focused on student well-being, academics, equity planning, school finances, and staff support, retention and recruitment.
We flexed our muscles. VEA/NEA members rose up to send thousands of messages of support to Congress, playing a key role in legislators’ passage of the CARES Act, which sent $240 million in federal aid to Virginia’s public schools.
Your national Union spoke up in numerous Washington, D.C. forums. One example: NEA sent Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro to speak before the National Academy of Science, where he said, in part, “All staff who return to work in education worksites are at higher risk of COVID-19 infection and must be protected from the virus with non-pharmaceutical interventions before the vaccine is available… It is crucial for any vaccination plan to incorporate the voices of front-line workers, including educators.”
NEA was there for your students, too. Shortly after the COVID crisis hit, the NEA Foundation offered COVID-19 Rapid Response Grants of $1,500 to $5,000 to help educators deal with its unique challenges. Those grants will help in classrooms around the country this fall.
Your Union CARES also about your debt. NEA also offered webinars showing members how to use emergency CARES Act funding to reduce student debt.
We “Hustled” to check on you. Through a texting program called Hustle, we were able to reach out to some 12,000 members early in the COVID crisis to see how you were doing.
We shouted from the rooftops. In July, as school reopening plans were being discussed, VEA issued a public and media statement reaffirming our commitment to the health and safety of students and educators. Part of it read, “As the state releases its COVID-19 guidance for public schools, and as Virginia school divisions make plans for the 20-21 school year, we believe that we need to keep everyone safe—from the kindergartner who may have a little trouble keeping his hands to himself to the 62-year old teacher with a chronic disease that has weakened her immune system.”
Then we followed up. After the public statement, VEA/NEA distributed a document called “Checklist for Safely and Equitably Reopening Schools and Campus Buildings” to help guide a safe and healthy process for the 20-21 school year.
After that, we delivered your message personally. In August, VEA President James Fedderman moderated a roundtable discussion with U.S. Senator Mark Warner about COVID and our schools.
We’re going the distance. Because we’ve all faced the challenges of online instruction, NEA has been holding a series of webinars on distance learning this fall. Topics include using Google Classroom, addressing students’ social-emotional needs, and more. The webinars run through December. Check them out here:
We’re going even farther. We created a page on our website called “Teaching with Technology during COVID-19: Best Practices to Take Care of Ourselves and Our Students.” It lays out some very valuable principles—check it out here.
Turn the page. The next article in this issue of the Virginia Journal of Education offers further insight on teaching online.
We’re shedding light. VEA member-lobbyists have been building support for a transparency bill in the General Assembly’s special session—one that will protect students and educators. The bill would require school divisions to post their reopening plans on their websites, in addition to their health and safety plans.
Our efforts during the special session didn’t end there. VEA staff and members were your voice, fighting for every possible federal dollar for K-12 schools, the restoration of the nearly $500 million in new public school funding in the original 2020 session that became “unallotted” after COVID, the protection of all available state resources, emergency funds, and the full funding of rebenchmarking.
We hit the airwaves. Your Union has been producing Facebook Live programs every week since March (sometimes twice a week), offering up-to-the-minute information on public education and the coronavirus. We’ve covered a wide range of topics and had lots of special guests, including members, UniServ Directors, headquarters staff members, education officials, nonprofit leaders, and a Congressional candidate.
You created the agenda for many of those FB Live programs. Many of those FB Lives were “Monday Mailbags,” in which we answered questions you’d submitted on topics including collective bargaining, SOL tests, VEA events, RIFs/job security, mental health supports, technology, making up for lost time, ensuring equity, and COVID’s impact on school budgets.
We helped you deal with your stress. LaQueshia Jeffries, a VEA member and special educator in Fairfax County, led a webinar on self-care for our members during a time of sky-high anxiety for educators. One focus of the webinar, which is still available on VEA’s website, was called “Five Ways to De-Stress.”
“Member Benefits” isn’t just a nice name. NEA Member Benefits has devoted a section of its website to how NEA MB and its partners can help members during COVID. From financial services to job layoff help to retail discounts, you can check out a virtual menu of guidance and help at neamb.com.
We won’t let COVID derail your PD. We’re delighted to introduce VEA VirtualEd, a new way for you to take control of your own professional development! You can earn micro-credentials in the subjects and skills most useful to you, and it’s free. Learn more here.
We didn’t pause in our PD efforts, either. VEA held its annual Education Support Professionals Conference in October and will go ahead with the Instruction and Professional Development Conference in November. Both events are virtual, but both still feature the kind of top-notch training for which VEA has always been known.
We helped you inspire one another. Through the Virginia Journal of Education, our website, and social media, we spotlighted the outstanding work being done by many of our members during COVID, sharing their stories of making videos for their students, organizing car parades, and finding numerous ways to reach out to students and communities.
We made it easy to make a difference in COVID financial decisions. Your Union set up an easy, online way for you to register your support for crucial funding calls being made in Richmond. All you had to do was click to send an email to targeted legislators. Here’s one example: vea.link/sales-tax.
We gave legislators an updated weather forecast. As part of VEA’s daily fight to have the General Assembly protect school funding, we partner in the Fund Our Schools coalition, which held a virtual rally during the special session. To urge legislators to tap the state’s “Rainy Day” funds to support K-12, participants posted photos or videos in rain gear.
We made sure COVID didn’t hinder your trip to the polls. We’ve worked very hard to spread the word that voting early by mail is safe, easy, and secure, and prevents any risk from standing in long lines or mingling in crowds on Election Day. The scoop is at veanea.org/vea-votes.
Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.