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‘We’re here to celebrate education.’ Teacher union heads call for solutions, not politics

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest union of educators nationwide, visited three public schools in Miami-Dade Thursday and called on parents and others to focus on “lifting up kids” instead of what she called harmful politics in classrooms.

“Others sow fear and division. Our focus is connection and community,” said Randi Weingarten, at a press conference with Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, the local teachers union.

Standing outside Miami Jackson Senior High in Allapattah, Weingarten said her union — which represents about 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers, paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel nationwide — wants to address three main issues that have been affecting students since the pandemic: loneliness, illiteracy and learning losses.

In early August, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres cited national data that shows students are still five to six months behind in their learning because of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which began in March 2020 and resulted in the closing of schools and remote learning.

To achieve its goals, the AFT launched a $5 million campaign in late July to fund initiatives like encouraging kids to pick up books and read, expanding mental health services, pushing social media companies to improve their policies, fighting for more state funding in schools, and promoting more experiential training related to technical and other careers.

Both union heads visited Miami Jackson High, 1751 NW 36th St., as well as Coconut Grove Elementary School, 3351 Matilda St., and MAST Academy on the Rickenbacker Causeway. They said they saw the schools’ culinary, information technology and finance programs and congratulated teachers.

READ MORE: Classrooms have become political battlegrounds in Florida. Will it intensify this year?

“We’re here to celebrate education,” said Hernandez-Mats, whose union represents about 43,000 Miami Dade Public Schools’ employees. “This is about elevating the work our public schools are doing every single day, despite the narrative and in spite of the negative rhetoric that’s out there.”

In the past two years or so, many teachers and parents have denounced policies and laws pushed through by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and his allies in the Legislature. They’ve mostly criticized how Black history is being taught, how LGBTQ+ students are being treated and how some books are being banned.

READ MORE: Book bans are growing in South Florida schools. You’ve probably read some of these books

In response, DeSantis and his team have argued that educators are indoctrinating students to the left and that parents need and want to be more involved with the curricula.

READ MORE: ‘Black history is under attack.’ Hundreds in Miami protest DeSantis’ school standards

An attendee holds Black history books during an education town hall at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. The town hall was convened after the Florida Board of Education adopted new standards for teaching Black history that many have criticized.
An attendee holds Black history books during an education town hall at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. The town hall was convened after the Florida Board of Education adopted new standards for teaching Black history that many have criticized.

Through its “Real Solutions for Kids and Communities“ campaign, the AFT will donate 2.5 million books nationwide by July 2024. In early August, they handed out books like “The ABCs of Black History” at a Miami Gardens town hall organized to discuss the Florida Board of Education’s newly adopted controversial standards for teaching Black history, which in part suggest some slaves benefited from their enslavement.

To further foster reading, the AFT partnered in July with Reading Universe, an online free reading tool.

As part of the mental health aspect of the campaign, AFT released a report this summer called “Likes vs. Learning” that explores how unregulated content on the internet sparks depression and causes bullying.