2020 | Bethesda Beat

Opinion: As COVID-19 continues school disruption, it’s time to rally around teachers

Pandemic is a critical turning point in our history, with racial and economic implications

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A recent study from the Brookings Institution released this summer estimates nearly one-third of students will fall a full grade behind as a result of COVID-19-related instruction loss.

Students from low-income households, many of whom are Black and Latino, will experience the worst of this as a result of parental essential work status, instruction loss, technology gaps or difficulty securing child care.

Now, parents must balance these existing difficulties with an uncertain school new normal. Teachers across the nation, many of whom are parents themselves, must meet our community’s needs while grappling with historic professional pay gaps, an unequal division of labor in schools and routine exclusion from the decision-making table.

As COVID-19 continues to threaten our students’ future, it will be critical to increase support around Montgomery County Public Schools’ essential and front workers — our teachers.

COVID-19 has not merely presented new challenges to our county. It has exposed a history of inequality.

Today, our schools educate more than 165,000 students across 208 sites.

Nearly 54 percent of our students are Black or Latino. Yet, Montgomery County did not provide an education provision for Black students until 1872, when it established a segregated school system. Schools did not become fully integrated until after the passing of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision.

At these critical turning points in history, the majority of our community has come together for the common good of expanding access and inclusion for all of our residents.

This pandemic is yet another critical turning point in our history, and it is not without long-reaching racial and economic implications.

While elected officials and administrators have advocated for reopening schools as the one sure way to fight instruction loss and the deepening of inequality, they have shared little guidance on how to navigate complex public health and education futures. Teachers have played a limited role in shaping what this reality looks like for our students.

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has offered to be a resource during this reopening process, and it has been working with Montgomery County Public Schools over the last year on a set of reasonable agreements to provide more support to the county’s teachers as a means of better supporting its diverse tapestry of students. These requests include a professional pay increase, safer classrooms based on smaller teacher-to-student ratios, and greater teacher inclusion in school curriculum and program design.

The MCEA has just cause for advocating for more resources as the demands grow for our teachers, 79 percent of whom are women and 85 percent of whom have an advanced degree. Nationally, teachers are paid 21.4 percent less than similarly educated professionals, according to the National Education Association.

The average classroom size in the county is about 25 students, yet experts say a productive teacher-to-student ratio is 1:15, according to the School Superintendents Association. This ratio will only become more important as physical distancing measures take over our schools.

Teachers are also left out of the program and curriculum development process, despite cultivating a wealth of qualitative data and context built on years of interaction with students and families. This contributes to an environment where teachers are forced to address significant areas with one hand tied behind their back.

Addressing MCEA’s concerns and creating true opportunities for inclusion and respect at the school and curriculum design tables would not only increase our chances of fighting back against COVID-19, it would also send a strong message to our society about the value of teachers and the value of women in work.

The future of schooling is uncertain and scary. COVID-19 puts our students and families at a dangerous disadvantage that can impact our children’s future, their economic mobility and personal aspirations for years to come.

As we fight to eliminate the pandemic, our community must be equally committed to building up one of our most critical defenses: teachers.

Latechia Mitchell
Teacher at Stedwick Elementary School in Montgomery Village

Fred Azcarate
Takoma Park
Father of three children in Montgomery County Public Schools