Teacher vaccinations and prioritizing safe schools demonstrates leadership

Like a breath of fresh air, the recent news from the Governor that teachers of pre-K through 12th grade will be prioritized to receive the coronavirus vaccine was welcome news in our house.

I’m not just the founder of Teach For America Idaho. I’m also a parent. My wife is a nurse practitioner. Like many of us, I took turns teaching our three children while working, managing my staff and doing my best to maintain a sense of optimism.

Tony Ashton

Nothing made me more optimistic than the news that Idaho will be one of a few states to vaccinate teachers alongside other front-line workers. This was preceded by the Governor and state education board’s decision in December — in response to weeks of consecutive record infections — to limit school activities to groups of 10 or less. These steps demonstrate a commitment: keeping our schools safe for in-person learning. When our children and teachers are safe, all Idahoans are better off.

Since August, nearly half of our 40 teachers have contracted COVID-19. Several have had to resign or take leave over medical issues. Others have been hospitalized. It is common for Idaho’s teachers to pay for their own PPE, cleaning supplies as well as COVID-19 tests. Most have been expected to report to work if they have been exposed, so long as they aren’t showing symptoms. It’s too early to tell how the pandemic will impact teacher retention, but vaccination will be crucial to keeping our great teachers, especially in hard-hit rural communities.

COVID-19 has another deeply concerning consequence: students are losing critical learning time and the opportunity gap is widening. Low-income students and students of color are less likely to have access to high-speed internet, devices like Chromebooks and iPads to access coursework, and the differentiated instruction and individualized support that are especially crucial when learning from home.

Our most vulnerable students face the effects of family job loss, food insecurity, and care-giving challenges — all interfering with their ability to focus on school. Early research shows that students have lost one-third of the academic progress they made before the pandemic.

According to the Idaho State Department of Education, overall proficiency on the Idaho Reading Indicator is the lowest it has been in six years. In all four grade levels measured, our students’ progress fell.

Unfortunately, this trend holds up for mathematics as well. A recent study published by the research-based not-for-profit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), shows elementary and middle school students across the country scored an average of 5 to 10 percentile points behind their expected growth this year.

But what I’m most worried about, and what I hope fellow Idahoans will join me in overcoming, is the local and national trend showing a decline in student enrollment. The NWEA study found that 1 in 4 students across the country were missing from fall exams. These students represent a disproportionate number of low-income students and children of color. The Idaho State Board of Education recently reported that more than 11,600 students expected to return to Idaho’s public schools this fall never showed up — nearly twice as many as years past.

The stakes are high, especially for our students most at risk. We must continue to put our teachers and students first by doing everything we can to keep our students healthy and learning.

Now is the time for lawmakers, administrators and parents to show leadership and come to consensus that our children are our first priority. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Ensure schools follow the Idaho Rebounds plan. It provides guidance based on detailed metrics related to virus activity.
  • Prioritize school opening and access to increased services to our most vulnerable students: those in elementary grade levels and those who receive free or reduced-price lunch.
  • Integrate resources and support for students’ behavioral health, in addition to literacy and math, as we look to address learning loss in the coming months.
  • Increase access to PPE materials and cleaning materials to all schools but prioritize those schools that are least likely to have access.
  • Provide free COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to school staff and students.
  • Follow the recommendations our Governor has given: wear masks, social distance and use hand sanitizer.

Our state prioritized the health of our teachers and student learning, and all Idahoans must take every reasonable precaution to continue to preserve the safety of students, teachers and staff.  Our students are counting on us.

Tony Ashton is the Executive Director of TFA Idaho, a nonprofit organization that finds and develops leaders who commit to expanding opportunity for low-income students, beginning with at least two years teaching in a public school.

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