VEA Takes on COVID-19
May 27, 2020
May 27, 2020
By Tom Allen
“We wanted our students to know that we’re still here for them. They need to know that we haven’t forgotten them, and that we love and miss them,” says Melanie Tinsley, an Amherst Education Association member and reading specialist at Madison Heights Elementary School. “We wanted to spread a little joy.”
Tinsley and about 15 carloads of her MHES colleagues accomplished all that during their “Teacher Parade” not long after Virginia’s public schools closed in March. In one of the earliest such events to be held in the state, the teachers drove, honking and waving, through local neighborhoods and were greeted by students holding signs and cheering.
Every day since those school closures, in an academic year like no other, educators are have had to break new ground as we make our way through this COVID-19 pandemic. We’re not only keeping students moving ahead with their learning, but also safe, healthy, reassured, and fed—all while doing everything we can not to catch an insidious coronavirus, too.
“The beautiful thing is that we’ve been figuring this out together—as a Union, as colleagues, and as communities,” says VEA President Jim Livingston. “I’ve never been more proud to be an educator.”
Our members have been nothing short of phenomenal, though their worlds have been rocked just as much as everyone else’s has. We surveyed you right after Governor Ralph Northam ordered public schools closed and, overwhelmingly, your primary concern was for your students. Here are just a few examples of how you’ve acted on that concern (we could go on for pages):
When schools in Buchanan County closed for what was initially thought to be for two weeks, staff got to work to ensure that students who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs didn’t go hungry. Since then, buses have been leaving school parking lots at 10 a.m. to make deliveries every day. “This has been a wonderful opportunity for me personally,” says BCEA member and high school principal Kathy Witt. “I have been allowed to see where my students live. It blesses my heart to see kids come out to get their meals. Some of the small children stay on their porches and just wave and yell hello. They get so excited when you speak back to them. Providing food to families who you know depend on school meals to help feed their children is an awesome thing to be a part of.”
Chesterfield Education Association member Paige Conti has created a YouTube channel so she and her students can stay connected and continue learning.
Kathy Grant is a preschool teacher and member of the Charlottesville Education Association, and she happened to be out sick the Friday before schools were closed. “We thought we’d be back soon,” she says. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to the kids and they didn’t get to say goodbye to each other. We went from all this learning to nothing, all of a sudden.” She’s doing everything she can to turn that “nothing” into something very meaningful by delivering activity bags to the homes of each of her 16 students, and is also sending a daily email to keep families in the loop.
Washington County Education Association member Dave Carroll, a music educator at both the middle and high school level, has found a unique way to keep his students singing—and healthy. Every day, beginning shortly after Gov. Northam ordered schools shuttered, he’s filmed himself singing a different song and washing his hands, then posted the videos for his students (and the world) to enjoy. Both the singing and the hand-washing go on for the CDC-recommended 20-30 seconds. He’s not at all worried about running out of tunes. “That’s the easy part,” he says, with a laugh. “I’ve changed genres and done mini-series. I can go on for a long time.” His numbers so far have included everything from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” to “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.
DeAnna Day, a member of the Amherst Education Association, lives in neighboring Nelson County, a rural environment where internet access isn’t always easy to come by. “My area doesn’t have cell service and I don’t have access to a land line,” she says. “So I have to drive to one of the Amherst schools and sit in the parking lot in order to have internet and get work done.” The school is a 12-mile trip, each way. When she gets there, Day, who teaches English as a Second Language, can translate documents and school communications for students and parents. While parked, she’s also making phone and video calls to them through Google Hangouts and collaborating with other teachers through email and Google documents.
Charlottesville Education Association member Ernest Chambers, an elementary physical education and health teacher, has been encouraging his students to be up and moving through dance videos and social media.
Andy Brower of the Richmond Education Association has been sending regular postcards to his first-graders, calling each of them weekly, and one week sent them a copy of the class photo. “I’m reaching out because I know many families in the Richmond community struggle with adversity,” he says. “Many of our students have single parents or other guardians who struggle to cope with job, food and financial security. Though many of these adults are loving providers, their emotional safety net is very thin. I worry about the mental health and safety of our students and their families during this time. I’m also anxious because in first grade many of the students are really starting to read with some fluency and gaining some number sense in the third marking period and that is now disrupted.”
Carlos Castro, a robotics teacher and Prince William Education Association member, put his 3-D printer to work to create masks and face shields for local first responders. You can see him featured on a Washington, D.C. television station here.
Answers to frequently asked questions, a webinar on self-care, and a plethora of resources—the VEA has been keeping it coming for our members as we all negotiate a time no one was fully prepared for. The FAQs cover a wide gamut of topics, including what educators are supposed to be doing now, how special education is affected, how teacher licensure is being handled, how lost time will be made up, where to find information on the coronavirus, and even if educators can still plan on their paychecks.
The FAQs are part of VEA’s website coverage of COVID-19 and our schools, which you can find here. There, you’ll also find guidance on how to properly handle online instruction and communications with students; benefits and assistance available to Union members; a rundown of things you’ll need to know during school closures; and ways to stay connected professionally.
VEA President Livingston has also been updating members on new information and offering his insights in twice-weekly Facebook Live presentations. They’re broadcast each Monday and Thursday afternoons at 3 and are also available for viewing later on VEA’s Facebook page, facebook.com/virginiaeducationassociation. So far, Livingston has also been joined by guests including Washington County member Dave Carroll; Kathy Burcher, VEA’s Director of Government Relations and Research; Naila Holmes, VEA’s Director of Human and Civil Rights; and UniServ Director Doris Boitnott.
VEA staff members are also in daily contact with the governor’s office, the Virginia Department of Education, and other state agencies as decisions about how to manage public education going forward are made.
Across the state, local leadership has stepped up ensure members are informed and protected, too. In Montgomery County, Erin Bull reports that MCEA’s executive committee has met several times with the division’s superintendent by video conference: “We had some questions about the budget, teacher evaluations, and changes since we are teaching online, and also questions regarding hourly employees. Matthew Fentress, our local president, has had very open communication sharing the concerns of educators and parents.”
Riley O’Casey, president of the Prince William Education Association, has also been in regular touch with her school division’s leadership. “Because of our advocacy, our subs and temps will get paid and principals have been told to stop making special education teachers work,” she says.
VEA’s field staff has been there for members, too. “One of the strengths of the VEA has always been our ability to connect,” says Doris Boitnott, UniServ Director covering southwest Virginia. She and her fellow UDs had a shared document so they’d be in touch with what was happening around the state and what was being decided in Richmond.
“I was monitoring, along with my local leaders, 11 school divisions all doing similar but different things,” says Boitnott, who’s been on VEA’s staff since 1989. “And we’re still covering meetings with leaders, reps, superintendents, school boards, and local governing bodies, only by computer or phone now. I had been working with one of my localities regarding their local school board/city council elections in May, planning to engage our member voters by phone to vote absentee. And we’re still promoting membership and member benefits, and member rights advocacy continues—it’s just in a different way.”
At press time, we knew of two VEA member lost to COVID-19. Angela Jackson, a custodian in the Alexandria City Public Schools, passed away April 13 from complications of the virus. She had continued to work until April 1, helping maintain and disinfect school buildings so that services could continue.
Raymond Anderson, a bus driver and mechanic in Greensville County, died April 17 from COVID-related health issues. He worked at the Greensville County Bus Garage for 33 years.
“These educators put their lives on the line for students,” says VEA President Jim Livingston, “and we mourn their loss. We will honor their courage and commitment by continuing to fight for our students and continuing to make the health and safety of our educators and young people our top priority.”
If you’re on Facebook, check out the NEA Educators Navigating COVID-19 Together group. At press time, it had over 215,000 members sharing information, exchanging advice, and supporting each other.
In addition, The NEA Foundation can help you get geared up for your students’ return through its COVID-19 Rapid Response Grants. This summer, and when you’re together again, you and your students will face new challenges. The Foundation will be awarding grants of $1,500 to $5,000 to help you meet them. To learn more, and apply for one, visit www.neafoundation.org.