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Despite navigating uncharted territory in developing reopening plans during a major public health crisis, teachers unions and education advocates are demanding school districts and other elected officials prioritize safe and equitable reopenings.

The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit earlier this week challenging the mandate of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration that all Florida public schools open and resume class in person without exception in August.

Over the past week and a half, parent leaders, education advocates, teachers, and community allies have released open letters imploring the powers that be to listen to those most directly impacted by decisions around school reopenings. Calling for an inclusion of a parent voice in school reopening decisions, the Parent Voice on Equity in Reopening Schools letter was created by 10 equity-centered, parent-led organizations representing families in over 30 states and more than 100 communities. 

“Parents being part of the solution-making process strengthens the parent-teacher-school partnership which is crucial for student success,” wrote the collective. “We recommend that plans to reopen schools be driven by equity and what is best for children and families and not simply to benefit the economy. This is not a time to cut education funding. The health, safety and education of our children are not political issues.”

Last week, Journey for Justice Alliance joined nearly 40 organizations to pen an open letter to President Donald Trump. Comprising predominantly Black and brown-led grassroots organizations, Journey for Justice Alliance is using the reopening conversation to address deep systemic flaws within the current system.

“We are very clear that the issue is inequity,” said Jitu Brown, national director of Journey for Justice Alliance. “That inequity existed before COVID-19, and it has been exacerbated in this moment.”

A signer on the Journey for Justice Alliance letter, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) called for the passage of policies such as Medicare for All and the HEROES ACT—which includes direct funds for public schools—to provide relief for communities and families.     

“Science makes it clear that restarting schools will require greater federal and state resources for our schools to support broad community preparedness and economic relief,” said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz in a July 21 statement. UTLA believes that expenditures should be reprioritized to increase investments in community education and public health.

“The money is there for safer communities, but it is going to the wrong places. We cannot open school buildings during this crisis without the adequate support that our educators, students, and communities we serve need,” said Myart-Cruz.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), also a signer Journey for Justice Alliance letter, released Same Storm, Different Boats: The Safe Equitable Conditions For Reopening CPS in 2020-21, a report laying out the needs of students, families, and educators for teaching and learning to occur in person. In a statement, CTU pointed out that over 80% of Chicago public school students and half the staff are Black, Latinx, multi-racial, or Native American, and that “[t]he consequences of racist health care, discriminatory housing, and employment practices are that these students, educators, and their families are at greater risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.”

A recent survey showed that 70% of parents expressed concerns with students going back to school full time. Chicago Public Schools is planning for students to return to class part time in-person, while the largest charter school network in the city will be starting off with remote learning, arguably creating a disparity in children in publicly funded schools. Speaking during a press conference, CTU Vice President Stacey David Gates said that families and communities were dealing with three converging pandemics: COVID-19, economic inequality, and institutionalized racism.  

“We need more than just Black Lives Matter on people’s websites and toppled Confederate statues,” said Brown. “We are demanding a reckoning. [And] we’re demanding that the inequities that have taken root in school districts all over the United States must be vigorously addressed.”

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.