On Monday night, Representative Tom O’Halleran and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, hosted a telephonic town hall to discuss COVID-19 and what it means for K-12 education.
He opened the Town Hall with comments about current legislation, CARES Act funding and the new HEROES Act that members of the House have approved and now awaits Senate approval.
Thomas also spoke about his background, growing up in rural Oklahoma in towns much like those in the Copper Corridor.
Both men spoke on the loss of Hayden-Winkelman teacher Kim Byrd, expressing their condolences to the family and to her students.
Mrs. Byrd’s death from complications of COVID-19 and the revelation that she shared a classroom this summer with two other teachers, who also contracted COVID-19, while teaching online summer school has garnered national attention. On Monday, according to the Arizona Republic, President Donald Trump was asked during a news conference about Mrs. Byrd’s death and how he would respond to parents who are worried about sending children back to school. His response was to say that the schools need to be opened. He did not speak about Mrs. Byrd. Currently, Arizona schools will be going back on Aug. 17, per Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s Executive Order.
Following the opening remarks by O’Halleran and Thomas, the phone lines were opened up for questions from those attending the teleconference.
David, a school board member from an elementary school district was concerned about obtaining proper PPE for teachers and funding for school districts.
Kathleen, a parent from Winkelman, expressed her concern about the lack of technology for rural schools. Students are being left behind, she said.
Beatrice, who is the mother of a third grader, was concerned about sending her son back to school. What measures are the schools taking, she asked. There is only one teacher for a whole bunch of kids but no teacher’s aides.
“They need more workers in the schools,” she said.
“We absolutely need more teachers,” he said. Arizona, he added, has the highest student to teacher ratio in the country.
Parents demand better and kids should have a quality educational experience, he said.
Rep. O’Halleran said that looking at business and industry response to COVID-19 shows that they had to hire more people to allow for social distancing, checking temperatures, etc.
Schools, he said, had to set the same protocols as businesses and industry.
“We will overcome this,” he added, “through the strength of the American people.”
Superior Mayor Mila Besich also attended the town hall meeting. She expressed her concern that in the ongoing rush to open schools, rural school districts were being left behind.
Rep. O’Halleran thanked Mila for being on the frontline of rural communities. He spoke about the HEROES Act, which he was urging the Senate to approve. Provisions in the bill would provide more funding to rural communities in this time of COVID-19, especially for broadband services to aid districts with distance learning.
“It can’t be done on the cheap,” he said.
Thomas said that the government needs to make sure that all the schools are included.
The final question for the meeting came from a teacher, Suzanne, who wanted to know what happens if a teacher tests positive for COVID-19.
Her fellow teachers, she explained, are “very nervous about returning to the classroom.”
Social distancing is hard. Masks aren’t required. Temperatures won’t be taken and even if they are, she said, a lot of parents have no qualms about giving the child a Tylenol and sending them to school.
“Will teachers have protection (for their income) if they become sick?” she asked.
Unequivocally, O’Halleran stated, “Teachers are essential workers.” Congress is working on a bill to officially give that status to teachers and childcare workers. As such, they will have protections in the form of unemployment payments in the likelihood that they become ill.
Thomas said that the Arizona Education Association has several advisories on their website (ArizonaEA.org/coronavirus) that addresses these concerns for teachers, including extra time off for being sick, and information about the CARES and HEROES Acts.
To contact Rep. O’Halleran, visit his website at OHalleran.House.gov. From there you can email the Congressman, obtain a mailing address or phone number to one of his offices.