Celebrating Our Heroes

BY CINDY LONG AND MARY ELLEN FLANNERY

California educators packed hundreds of thousands of to-go meals for students. (Photo courtesy of the California Teachers Association)

As COVID-19 brought our nation—and the world— to a screeching halt, our communities needed educators more than ever. Even from a social distance, NEA members found creative, inspiring, and selfless ways to educate, feed, and tend to the well-being of their students and colleagues.

Your stories have made us smile and moved us to tears. And while just a very few of those experiences can fit on these pages, NEA salutes all 3 million of you—our members.

Each of you has touched the lives of your students and helped your community—offering strength, love, and optimism in these darkest of times. United, we will make it through.

Educator Finds FREE Wi-Fi for Rural Students
So many teachers hustled this spring to put their lessons online and connect virtually with students. But what happens when students can’t reach them? About one in seven students don’t have internet access.

When schools closed in North Carolina, Margaret Powell, a data manager at West Cary Middle School, near Raleigh, knew a lack of highspeed access would be a problem for students in rural communities. She sprang into action, calling association leaders and church leaders in rural areas around the state.

“Churches have big spaces that sit empty during the week,” she explains, “and they have Wi-Fi access to service hotspots for students in rural areas.”

Immediately, five pastors from decent-sized churches said yes, offering space for students to sit far apart from each other while downloading lessons to their devices.

“We’re hoping the powers-that-be are paying attention to what’s happening right now and work to banish these inequities,” Powell says.

Teachers Throw Parades for Students

You can’t rain on these parades! Educators across the nation hopped into their cars this spring to parade through students’ neighborhoods, spreading good cheer and smiles from sun roofs and side windows. Appropriately distanced from each other, riding in cars with their own family members only, educators said the positivity parades lifted spirits—including their own.

ESPs provide meals for students in need
Nearly two out of three students in rural Graves County, Kentucky, rely on free or reduced-price school lunches to stay healthy. So when schools shut their doors, it could have led to a lot of hungry children. Instead, education support professionals dug in.

“Our fantastic food-service professionals prepare all the grab-and-go meals daily, and our dedicated transportation team is making bus deliveries to students at home,” says Graves County custodian Matthew Powell, 2019 NEA ESP of the Year. “We even prepared a week’s worth of meals to be delivered to students while they’re out on spring break.”

And it’s not only in Kentucky. ESPs nationwide have helped ensure that students don’t go hungry.

Educators Help Children with Special Needs
Distance learning is uniquely challenging for students with special needs, but educators stepped up and worked together to figure it out. Special educators across the nation asked for and received information from their peers about how to deliver special education services through online teaching platforms.

“For our students who have special needs and supports, our … staff have done a phenomenal job in making sure they feel supported and providing the guidance they need during these challenging times,” says Tom Pirnie, a special educator with the Chariho Regional School District in Wood River Junction, R.I.

“Whether it was one-to-one in-person visits to school with appropriate social distancing and PPE [personal protective equipment], house calls, or virtual one-to-one sessions, we are ensuring the students … get the services they are entitled to,“ he says.

St. Louis school nurse Carmen Hill helps prepare and hand out learning packets for area students after school closed.

School Nurses Keep Students Safe
They’ve emptied out supply closets and donated everything, including thermometers, gloves, and respirator masks to the fight against coronavirus, but school nurses around the country didn’t stop there. They continued to engage with the community to do wellness checks and offer advice.

Carmen Hill, the nurse for Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis, called every one of her 600 student families to check on their well-being. She knows that many of her students and their siblings have asthma, and family members might have underlying conditions.

When she got to the end of the alphabet, she started over again.

“School is central to the lives of our community’s children, and for someone at school to reach out and let them know we care … and that we’re here to help … makes them feel so good and so much better able to cope,” says Hill, who used to work nights as an ICU nurse. Of her former coworkers, she says they need our constant applause for their heroism in putting their lives on the line.

“If I could help them by helping the families at my school, it was just a way to show how much I cared,” she says.

Federal Education Association retired member Trudy Pollard and her husband Robert model masks she made for healthcare workers and members of her retirement community.

Retiree’s look Out for Each Other
NEA-Retired members have been reaching out to friends, neighbors, and colleagues to make sure they’re okay.

“I know several people with various stages of short-term memory loss,” says Trudy Pollard, a retired member of the Federal Education Association. “They live alone and are isolated, not really clear on what is happening. I call them once a day just so they’d have some outside contact,” she says.

George Calder, a retired high school math teacher, is also reaching out. “As a single, 82-year-old, I decided to pick one of my single friends each day to call weekly and stay in touch,” he says. “Almost immediately, I found one [call] a day wasn’t enough. Now I have two, sometimes three, phone calls per day to make.”

These connections help lift people’s spirits and offer a lifeline to those who need help.

Thankfully, so far everyone has said the same thing: “We’re doing fine! Thank you!”

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