September 4, 2020

This Labor Day, Congress can honor teachers by listening to what they need to do their jobs well in these challenging times

Evan Stone Co-Founder and Co-CEO

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed an act creating Labor Day in an attempt to apologize to American workers and labor unions after federal troops, sent in to break up a strike, caused the deaths of over a dozen railway workers. More than a century has passed, but true respect for the contributions of workers in this country remains elusive, as national leaders have failed repeatedly to provide the most basic supplies and protections to keep them safe during this pandemic, and the financial support to see them through incredible economic instability. At Educators for Excellence, we see this playing out for teachers and in schools across the country. 

The absence of presidential leadership and the inaction of our federal government has left the United States plagued with the most COVID-19 cases in the world, as well as the highest death toll. It has also led millions of Americans to lose health care and additional unemployment benefits necessary to support them and their families, and has deeply damaged our economy. Workers have been forced to choose between their livelihoods and the health and safety of their families. And worse, communities of color have been disproportionately impacted because of systemic racism in our health, employment, education and childcare systems. 

This Labor Day, it is going to take more than a symbolic act to repair trust in the federal government. We need Congress to return from its recess ready to act swiftly on the demands of labor unions to defend the health, safety, and economic wellbeing American workers. The success or failure of our entire education system hangs in the balance. Schools across the country have been left largely on their own to design distance learning plans that require teachers to transform their profession — often without the resources or guidance for how to do so.  Still others are grappling with how to open safely, despite a lack of PPE, outdated ventilation systems, and facilities that do not allow for social distancing. 

Throughout the pandemic, elected leaders have lauded educators for their flexibility, grit and dedication to their students. Those words are meaningless if Congress does not pass a stimulus package that provides educators with what they need to do their jobs safely and effectively, whether they are teaching remotely or in-person. This is not a hard decision. It is in the interest of everyone that our schools do not become viral hotspots, fueling community spread of COVID-19. Even where schools can’t safely reopen, we should all want to ensure that learning is accessible for all students. Failing to provide safe, high-quality learning for students not only harms the future of millions of young people — it also jeopardizes the physical and economic health of their families and communities. 

Teachers are just the latest American workers taking significant personal risks for the common good, without the necessary protection, support, and recognition. It doesn't have to be this way.

This Labor Day, Congress can honor teachers by listening to what they need to do their jobs well in these challenging times, investing in local school districts to improve building safety and ventilation, provide PPE, and staff at appropriate ratios to maintain social distancing. Experts estimate that states will need at least $175 billion in federal aid to elementary and secondary schools to support emergency response and to avoid massive budget shortfalls that will lead to educator layoffs — right at the time they are needed most. Historically, teacher layoffs have disproportionately impacted teachers and students of color. We can’t allow this to happen again, particularly at a time when communities of color have been so gravely impacted. To avoid this, these funds should also include a “maintenance of equity” provision to ensure dollars are targeted to those hit hardest by the crisis.

A day off is wonderful, and we should not forget the origins of that hard-won victory. Lauding the contributions of teachers is definitely preferable to the all-too-common rhetoric that places the blame for our education system’s many shortcomings entirely on their shoulders.

But if we mean it — really mean it — we need to make sure that we, as a country, are listening to teachers about what they need to do their jobs and meet the needs of their students.

Evan Stone

Evan Stone is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.