A favorite talking point of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is to say that conversations about education should not be about “systems and buildings” but about “individual students.” It’s a skillfully crafted soundbite designed to cast schools as oppressive bureaucracies that limit the education opportunities available to children and families. It also differentiates schools from other essential public infrastructure such as fire and police protection, sanitation, and roads.
Few people question the need to have a fire department or an office responsible for transportation, but DeVos’s scripted phrase is an attempt to convince us that education has become a consumer good we can pick up anywhere and that schools are relics of a bygone era when we didn’t have the internet and other means of conveying knowledge.
But before DeVos casually dismisses the need to have public education institutions across the country, she should look at the vital role schools and educators have played in responding to the string of devastating natural disasters that hit America this year.
When Hurricane Irma strafed Florida, over 6.5 million citizens were ordered to evacuate their homes in the flood zones. Thousands found shelter in schools. Broward County, north of Miami, converted 21 schools into shelters to take in those having to flee Fort Lauderdale and other coastal towns. Palm Beach County schools took in 17,000 evacuees. Sarasota schools welcomed over 19,000 refugees. In Tampa-Hillsborough County, 45 of the district’s schools became storm relief centers, sheltering nearly 30,000 evacuees.
To protect residents unable to get out of town, Miami-Dade County converted 42 schools to shelters. In Monroe County, home to Key West which took the brunt of the storm, the local school became a “refuge of last resort” for those unable to get off the islands.
In most cases, the people who staffed the schools became the volunteers in the shelters, “working around the clock to feed evacuees, keep the shelter clean, and provide other supports,” Education Week reports.
Teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, social workers, and other school staff – many who are unionized workers – were the “unsung heroes” of the storm relief effort, reports the Miami Herald. “Before and during the storm, and into the aftermath, school employees worked tirelessly, helping convert places of learning into safe havens for storm evacuees.
When Irma shuttered schools and cut power in high-poverty communities, where children rely on schools for free breakfast and lunch, school districts used food trucks and delivery vans to distribute free meals to children.
When Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas with torrential rains, 1 in 4 students in the state were affected by the storm. A list of shelters taking in Harvey refugees published in a Houston news outlet includes scores of schools along with churches and community centers.
While an owner of a furniture store made national headlines for taking in flood victims, educators and other school staff across the state received few accolades as they helped to convert schools to shelters and deliver meals and blankets and other aids.
Schools used Facebook and Twitter to help family members track one another down, tell people when shelters were full, and stay in touch with children and parents at their homes once the storm had passed but schools had yet to reopen.
Victims of the most recent storm, Hurricane Maria, that devastated all of Puerto Rico, are still digging out of the damage and struggling to find access to safe drinking water and food. For many of the sufferers and their communities, schools have been a lifeline. Many schools defied the widespread destruction to stay open and serve as refuges for storm victims and community centers distributing water and meals.
Using the strength of their union, the 40,000-member Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican, educators have distributed supplies, organized storm centers, even provided money, in amounts of up to $500 each to help teachers dealing with the impact of the storm.
Mainland schools and educators are playing key roles in the storm relief effort as well, taking in hundreds of Puerto Rican school children able to flee the island. Nearly 700 students displaced by the storm have enrolled in the Orlando-Orange County school district alone.
In California, where the adversary isn’t wind and rain but devastating fire, schools and educators have rushed to reopen campuses to resume teaching and learning after the blazes displaced thousands of families and shut down 600 schools in three counties.
Educators, some of whom lost their homes, are returning to their workplaces with the urgency to “bring a sense of security and normalcy” to traumatized children. Schools are carefully following clean air protocols to ensure safe environments for their students and bringing in additional counselors and psychologists to help returning students with the mental anguish of evacuating their homes and returning to the blackened landscape.
Based on how schools and educators have come up big for their communities hit by such cataclysmic events, it would seem that Betsy DeVos would praise the “system” she leads and urge the presidential administration she serves to bolster support for teachers and schools.
Instead, while news stories showed how our schools and educators performed heroically in the face of catastrophe, DeVos urged parents to choose education options other than their public schools and insulted anyone daring to defend our public education system. That truly is “Sad!”