Community groups allied with educators adapt in COVID-19 reality

“We take care of each other.”

By Félix Pérez

Black, Latino, Indigenous and low-income communities have been hit especially hard by COVID -19, laying bare a host of longstanding structural and institutional inequities. But physical distancing and other COVID-related restrictions are not stopping local groups allied with educators from organizing and improvising in their communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has really shown the importance of schools as vital hubs for our students and families. They’re the social and emotional centers of our communities.”

– Keith Brown
Middle school teacher and president of
the Oakland Education Association in California

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really shown the importance of schools as vital hubs for our students and families. They’re the social and emotional centers of our communities,” said Keith Brown, a middle school teacher and president of the Oakland Education Association in California. OEA members have made videos for parents and translated them into multiple languages, as well as created a curriculum on how to do wellness checks on students and families.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, Oakland educators, parents and community partners have shifted their outreach and organizing efforts calling for a moratorium on both school closures and sharing public school facilities with charter schools, called co-location, to online platforms.

One educator explained the urgency of continuing their campaign in stark terms. “The pandemic has been a perfect opportunity for privatizers and their supporters to take advantage of our communities,” said Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, an Oakland classroom teacher and OEA board member.

Brown and Taiz-Rancifer were among the educators and community leaders who took part in a Zoom call in mid-April to discuss how their community work has shifted or been repurposed because of the pandemic. The call was organized by the National Education Association’s Community Advocacy and Partnership Engagement department, which provides grants to 21 local education associations in 14 states to deepen the relationships between educators and community organizers to improve student achievement, learning conditions and community strength.

Because of the COVID-19 related physical distancing restrictions in Milwaukee, the student organizing group Youth Empowered in the Struggle was forced to stop door knocking and switch to online voter outreach and education and digital phone banking. In partnership with the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, they were able to help pass a voter referendum that will bring $87 million in new school funding to attract and retain high-quality certified teachers, offer more career and technical education programs, and expand art, music, physical education, and language programs. They also educated voters about the election process and local candidates, including the first bisexual Latina elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, JoCasta Zamarippa, a former community organizer who wants to focus on affordable housing and hopes her win inspires young Latinas and members of the LGBTQ community to run for elective office.

Youth civic engagement has had a powerful impact beyond the electoral wins. “The kids are ecstatic even though they are not eligible to vote yet,” said Alejandra González, a YES student organizer. “The fact that they had a voice in this election was really empowering for them.”

González added that because of COVID-19, YES is beta testing a digital “freedom school” for the summer where students can learn about the history of community organizing in Milwaukee and nationwide. Additionally, said González, YES and its parent organization, Voces de la Frontera, started a relief fund for undocumented workers in the city and have raised more than $8,000.

“We take care of each other.”

– Amy Mizialko
Educator and president of MTEA,
Milwaukee, Wis.

Amy Mizialko, an educator and president of MTEA, shared how an MTEA member has taken a leading role in an effort to support isolated and undocumented immigrant families in the city’s south side whose members are ineligible for federal relief and unemployment benefits. The mutual aid initiative provides food, information and resources to students and families. “We take care of each other,” said Mizialko.

Food insecurity has become a priority during the COVID shutdown. In New Jersey, the Montclair Education Association teamed up with a local diner to distribute food, masks and cleaning supplies. “When all your children are home all day long, food goes a lot faster,” said classroom teacher Petal Robertson. Robertson, MEA president, said MEA partnered with community groups and the school district to determine which students are not attending online instruction sessions and to reach out to their families.

“Sometimes you find out a family has one Chromebook for five kids, or students don’t know how to use them,” said Robertson. As a result, Montclair educators created an online tutorial on how to use the computer.

In Gladys Marquez’s school district in Blue Island, Ill., where 98 percent of students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, the local education association, Illinois Education Association Local 218, provided “hygiene bags” to students along with grab-and-go meals. “Through something we call the closet, we provide students clothing if they need it,” added Marquez, an English teacher.

Pre-pandemic, Marquez’s education association organized student visits to Hispanic student leadership events and paired Latino high school students with their peers in college to encourage the younger students to attend college and consider teaching as a career option. IEA Local 218 was also conducting outreach to students and their families to fill out the census, a goal Marquez hasn’t forgotten. “We’re looking at ways of rolling out information about the census when they pick up their lunches and their hygiene bags,” she said.

Soul Watson, co-director of the Denver-based Our Voice Our Schools, said a number of the city’s community organizations are organizing an online conference May 14 with the Schott Foundation to push back against organizations exploiting the pandemic to privatize public education and create more virtual schools.

“Although we’re dealing with a crisis (COVID-19), this is nothing that we as Black, brown, Indigenous and working-class white people haven’t dealt with before. We must not just survive what appears to be the new normal, we must thrive. We must ramp up to a new level to continue to serve our communities.”