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A call to service: Our schools need you to step up

Let’s increase the numbers of tutors, mentors, classroom parents and community partnerships

This commentary was originally published by The Hechinger Report:

The challenges facing school communities are dire. Historic teacher and staff shortages. Parent frustration and exhaustion. School board meetings that more closely resemble a playground brawl than an exercise in democracy.

After two years of immeasurable strain from the pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning, public schools are at a breaking point.

As President Biden called for in his State of the Union address, it’s time for each of us to step up to help the bedrock of our nation — our schools. We need a cadre of caring adults — tutors, mentors, classroom parents and community partnership volunteers — to help lift the burden from the shoulders of our overworked educators and support staff and ensure that our students are supported, and schools remain open.

We call on our nation’s employers to allow highly qualified employees to volunteer in schools and districts. Employers can demonstrate their commitment to America’s youth by offering additional leave to workers, perhaps a few hours each week or a couple of days per month, to volunteer in schools.

Communities can assist, too. Former teachers who are still certified can act as substitutes and teachers’ aides. Community members can volunteer to help with bus duty, cafeteria monitoring, playground supervision, field trip chaperoning and other tasks that schools are scrambling to cover. Local adults can volunteer to read to a child who needs extra support. Professionals can provide volunteer tutoring or fill other roles determined by educators to be appropriate.

Certainly, engaging new volunteers in schools requires strong systems for vetting and training. The vetting can be done safely by using background checks and rapid Covid testing. In creating this onboarding process, we will need to include the voices of educators, as they know what their students and schools need.

This isn’t about replacing the professionals working in schools. Rather, this is about stepping up and responding to immediate needs. Several states are considering legislation that would lower standards for substitute educators. That is the wrong approach. Rather, we need to ensure that we maintain high standards for all the adults who work with our children.

The good news is that we are already starting to see some states, communities and national organizations step up to help.

Of course, we recognize that these are only short-term solutions to help us get through this difficult time. Nothing can replace a full-time teacher or support staff member. Nearly 7,500 schools had to cancel in-person learning on one or more days in just a single week in January 2022 when the omicron variant of Covid was prevalent. We need to heed President Biden’s call to service in schools now before the next spike in Covid cases.

Expanding on the efforts listed above will help keep schools open so students can learn in person alongside their classmates. Step up, America, and demonstrate our belief that schools are central to our future.

Deborah Delisle is CEO of All4Ed and former assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under President Barack Obama.

Deborah Delisle

President and CEO

Deborah S. Delisle is the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school well prepared for success in college, work, and citizenship.

Prior to her current position with All4Ed, Delisle served as executive director and CEO of ASCD, a professional community of more than 120,000 education professionals around the world. She also served as U.S. assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education from 2012 to 2015. During that time, she played a pivotal role in policy and management issues affecting prekindergarten, elementary and secondary education, and oversaw eighty-six programs with a portfolio of nearly $26 billion.

Meet Deborah