COVID-19 & Back to School?

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 24 │COVID-19 & Back to School?

Tuesday, June 2, 2020



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Show Notes

Amalia Chamorro

As the school year wraps up virtually, families around the world are wondering, what comes next? We spoke with Amalia Chamorro, Associate Director of Education Policy at UNIDOS US to learn more about COVID-19’s impact on our children and its potential impact on the back-to-school season. She reflects on the drastic changes families have faced these last few months and how schools and families will continue to have to adapt moving forward.


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LaWanda: Welcome to Notes from The Backpack of PTA podcast. I'm your cohost LaWanda Toney, Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA,

[00:00:08] Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA.

LaWanda: So it's our final episode of season two and I've got to admit this season has been different than we'd expected.

I've appreciated the opportunity to talk with experts about some of the serious issues that COVID-19 has brought into our lives. Plus we had some fun covering some lighter topics like bonding with our families around reading and science activities.

Helen: That’s right, LaWanda. I feel like I’ve also learned at ton. But the truth is, there’s still a whole lot I feel unsure about. I’m thinking about the last three months and wondering, what can we take away from all of this? What have we learned about distance learning, about creating plans to support all kids? And most of all, how can we take our experience during the pandemic to inform what school reopening looks like next year?

LaWanda: I know, Helen, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Those are tough questions, and I certainly don’t have the answers. This school year, the only thing I’m certain of is that it’ll be anything but “normal.”

Helen: That's right. Well thankfully we have an expert here today that can help us reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on our kids and our families.

Today, we're welcoming, Amalia Chamorro, Associate Director of Education Policy at UnidosUS, which is the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization. Amalia has 15 years of experience in public policy advocacy and community and government relations at the local, state and federal level. Prior to UnidosUS, she served as the Vice President of Public Policy at the United Way of the Bay Area. Amalia studied political science at UCLA and earned her JD from Boston college law school.

LaWanda: Welcome to the show, Amalia.

Amalia: It's great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

LaWanda: So tell us about yourself. How did you become focused on education policy and what makes you so passionate about this work?

Amalia: Sure well, education's always been, just a huge thing in my family. So both my parents were teachers, so growing up, you know, I would go with them to the classrooms, help them decorate their classrooms, during the summers, and they taught summer school.

When I was older, right, I would go and help out, and tutor some of the younger students. So it was just always a big part of my family. You know, coming from a family of educators. And so while I never became a teacher myself, I did see the need, both through my parents' experiences, but then as my own experience as an English learner, and my peers, right, in terms of not everyone having the same opportunities to, to have educational success and go on to college. That always stuck with me, because I remember I was one of just a handful of Latino students from my school in the Central Valley in California that was actually able to attend the four-year, college or university.

So that's something that obviously my parents were very proud of, but at the same time. I almost had this guilt, right? That, a lot of my friends and peers were kind of left behind. So when I, went to UCLA I studied public policy, you know, I had this urge and this passion to become an advocate and to really focus, my career to become a public policy advocate, so that I could have a part in shaping the laws, and shaping policies. And so that's, impacted, my, desire to, to become an advocate and to focus on a career in public policy.

Helen: Thank you for sharing that. I think the LaWanda's parents were both educators, am I right?

LaWanda: They were, they were both teachers. And I have those same memories of going to decorate the classroom in the summers and summer school and checking papers. And I did not pursue a career in teaching either, but glad that I'm a part of education for sure.

Helen: So Amalia, I want to jump in with you just to do a little bit of laying the groundwork about some of the great things that you and UnidosUS have been doing. Could you tell us a little bit about what you and UnidosUS have been learning about, how COVID-19 is affecting the families in your network?

Amalia: Sure. When things rapidly shifted, in March, when schools started to close down and, teachers and students were switching over to virtual learning, and that transition was super quick. And then also parents, who, some of them still had to go to work because they were essential workers. Some of them, had to stay home and work from home, but we've also seen a lot of parents lose their jobs. So that's had a huge impact on family. So, from the beginning we've been checking in with our network of affiliates, which are community based organizations across the US who provide services, to their communities, ranging from food assistance to housing counseling, to afterschool tutoring and so we've been checking in with them pretty regularly, just to find out how they were coping, how the families that they were serving, what they were experiencing, what the gaps and the needs were so that we could lift up those stories and those needs to do the advocacy that we knew we had to do, here at the federal level.

It's definitely been sobering just to hear, some of these really heart wrenching stories, and the thing is that a lot of these gaps with respect to healthcare access, jobs, these are issues that, we're already, happening to our families before the pandemic, but have only been exacerbated even more, with the situation, with, businesses being shut down, many Latino families are entrepreneurs, and are small business owners, and so they've been hit as well. But also, there's the stress that the families are feeling that trickles down to the, to the children. That's something that, we can't forget

we know that, while there's the academic gaps that we need to pay attention to, we also can't lose sight that this is having, a stressful impact and, a mental health crisis that's also being exacerbated because of everything that's going on and just the fear and the trauma, and everything that comes with that.

LaWanda: Yeah, that definitely is heart-wrenching. Like you said, it's a lot. UnidosUS is one of National PTA's most trusted advocacy partners. Can you tell us about some of the advocacy you have been doing recently around how students and families are being supported during the pandemic?

On the education front, we did make sure to do our part, to have additional funding for education that would go to the states, for them to be able to support the school districts in this rapid shift to, e-learning. Because you know, many teachers, didn't have, the training, the professional development to do that rapid switch. And so we know that it did take some schools some time, to actually be able to make that transition. We also knew from hearing from our families, that many families didn't have their own computers, their own devices or even broadband connectivity to actually be able to have their children login, To the eLearning platform. And that the parents themselves needed to, also know how to navigate, how to help their children log in and make sure that they were doing, the lesson plan. So it's definitely taken some time, still more work to be done in that, that area. And we were glad to see, funding specifically for education in the CARES Act. And then last week, the house did pass an additional stimulus bill called the HEROES Act, and that actually has four times the amount of money that was included in the last package, specifically for education.

One of the things that we did push for in the K-12 bucket, was dedicated funding though for English learners, because we know that that's one of the most underserved student populations that already experienced wide achievement gaps. And because of, the language barrier, with parents too, that's a huge challenge to make sure that parents of English learners are informed about the school's plans both with, e-learning, but also with reopening, when that happens. So to make sure that they're, those parents are not left out of being engaged of those plans and decisions and can help their children navigate those shifts.

Helen: Hmm. Thank you for bringing us up to speed a little bit on some of the current landscape and policy solutions that are out there. I want to fast forward a little bit. You mentioned in our chat, before we started recording, looking into a magic ball, a crystal ball, but I'm guessing that you, between your affiliates and some of the education circles you're in, you're also hearing about some of the options that are being put on the table for school opening.

Could you tell us a little bit about those? What sort of proposals are school districts even considering right now?

Amalia: Sure. I think any idea, that's going to keep students both safe as well as teachers and, and school staff, safe, while not continuing to disrupt, the, the school experience and the learning. all those options are on the table and schools and districts, are trying to be creative about how to create that space, because it is still uncertain and up in the air come the fall. Whether schools will actually be able to physically re-open or if they are, what that looks like?

And so some of the ideas and proposals that we have heard that, schools are considering are, this concept of year-round school, which is essentially shifts of students, like groupings of students coming in at different times. I know in California, which is where I grew up, and my mom was an elementary school teacher, year-round was a big model, at least it was back then. Where, there were three or four different groupings of students, so that not all students were there at the school at the same time. That’s one idea that might work if we're trying to, you know, keep the social distance, if we're worried about, a second wave coming or we still don't have the adequate treatments and, it's very likely, we're not going to have a vaccine by the fall at least that's what the health experts tell us.

That’s one idea that we've heard. We've also heard, ideas of having a hybrid or blended model where kids and students switch off between in-classroom and continuing to do the virtual learning. it's not like there's a right or wrong answer or right or wrong way to do this. I think schools are trying to be, both creative, and trying to, make sure that they, first and foremost, which we agree with is, keeping students and staff safe and healthy and avoid, any, further, exacerbation of, COVID infections. That's number one.

But then also, as educators, doing, you know, everything they can do to make sure that students don't fall further behind. So those are just a couple of models, ideas that we have heard discussed.

Helen: Hm. And can you talk a little bit more about, the impact of some of those different ideas and sort of what UnidosUS is thinking about in terms of, what might be best for your families and communities.

Amalia: So we know that there's typically already, a summer, learning loss, right? Because there's a big break between the end of the school year and then the fall. And so that, can be a very, opportunistic time to try to make up some of the learning loss that has occurred over the last two months, since school started to shut down. And it took folks some time to actually get acquainted and comfortable with the virtual learning. And so, whatever can be done in the summer to start to make up some of that time is really important. And that's something that we've been advocating also for additional funding from the federal government to be able to provide states with that kind of support, and then also come fall and throughout next year, we foresee that, we're going to have to provide, extra supports for all our students, so that we are not, contributing to, this continuing widening of achievement gaps. We know that it's going to look a little bit different. A lot of states, over the spring because of everything that was happening, suspended assessments and testing. There needs to be flexibility around that but we also can't, reduce or lower the standards that we have and the expectations that we have for our education system.

LaWanda: As we're talking about reopening, I know that a lot of parents feel like I do. Like, is there ever going to be an opportunity for us to get back to the way that we know school looked like, is that gone forever?

Amalia: That's a real question. And that can be stressful. And it's hard to answer that, a hundred percent because we, because we don't know yet how long this pandemic is going to last, how long it will take to find the vaccine, how long it will take for things to go back to quote, "normal."

But, I think this is definitely going to be, one of those, periods or markers, and time where things do change and. And the normal that we used to know, that's in the past. So how can we make the best of this scenario to move forward? and even telework for me as someone, who had to telework from home, right? And my colleagues do, I think the sudden shift, and telework and teleschool. Everybody was kind of uncomfortable at first, just trying to get used to and learn the new tools and platforms.

This change did force us to get comfortable with the technology. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, because if we are trying to be competitive, right, and the global economy, and we're also trying to develop students, you know, to be college and career ready and be competitive in a 21st century workforce, we do want them to develop these technological tools, and to get more comfortable with that.

I see that as one of the bright spots, honestly, in terms of like schools reopening and, and going back to, a more physical, learning setting. I think having, adapted to this e-learning, technological, virtual learning space and environment, not that that's going to replace in classroom learning, but it can help augment that and that's something that I think a lot of schools, educators, parents, and students might be thinking about.

Helen: I feel like even that statement probably varies depending on the family, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Right. So one of my big takeaways so far this season is so much of what's going on with the pandemic, this pandemic is really specific to not just even your community but your family and National PTA, and I know UnidosUS really have a strong value that family and community voice are shaping some of the policies and informing some of these decisions that affect them.

I'd love to switch gears and have you talk just a little bit about, what you're seeing in terms of how districts are engaging families and thinking about what school opening might look like and, and if they've had any missteps, what have those been, what not to do?

Amalia:  Yeah. we do encourage, you know, schools and districts to step up their efforts and to be intentional about, reaching out to parents, and especially to make sure that, that outreach is not only intentional, but also linguistically and culturally appropriate to make sure that, all parents, you know, are working off of the same information and have access to the schools, because that, that's something that doesn't always happen.

We are very much pushing, for schools and districts, to engage parents in that way. In a way that's very much intentional and to not make decisions without necessarily parental input because at the end of the day, there are parents who are very much scared to send their children back to school. And we know for, Latino families and you know, other communities of color, you know, that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, you know. So we did a, we actually released the poll this week with MoveOn and Somos, and you know, we had, we surveyed about 1900 adults, Latino adults from across the US, but one in four know someone personally who has been infected and one in three actually know someone who has died as a result of COVID.

That's a real, fear that I think we need to acknowledge and schools need to acknowledge that, that parents have. And so, you know, it's definitely necessary that parents be included in those decisions and those plans of how to reopen schools.

LaWanda: Yeah.

Things are moving so fast. it's just crazy how we are trying to figure out the summer, figure out the in the schools and talk about reopening. How can family stay informed about the ever-changing situation with their school reopening plans?

Amalia: That's right. I say, bless parents, because it's hard to be a parent right now and try to keep up, with children being at home, all the time, and multitasking more than ever. we know that many parents are working at the same time as trying to, support their children at home to make sure that doing their schooling. We also know many parents are still essential workers, so actually have to go outside and work, right. And, and are afraid of coming back and infecting their families. And so, looking ahead, parents, are going to have to, continue to pay attention and just as we are urging schools and districts to be intentional about reaching out to parents, parents are also going to have to continue to keep on top of, you know, the information and the updates that their schools are, are putting out,. whether that's, you know like, sign up for the school newsletter, right? Or proactively reaching out to the teachers that they know, or the administrator, to ask questions.

And we want to make sure that parents are informed as much as possible and because the situation that we're in it, it does feel sometimes that it changes from week to week. It's going to be really important for that to really be a two way street, right. For, for districts to do their part in schools, to do their part, to reach out to parents, and then parents to also hold, schools and districts accountable for, for the information that they need, to, to make the best decisions for their kids.

Helen: Yeah, absolutely. I think families are going to be, have to be part of that conversation for all the reasons you shared and that they've been the ones to have so much of the perspective on what's going on, not just in their household and with their child, but in their communities. particularly in the absence of having some of these formal assessments, right, that would normally happen at the end of the year. I learned a lot, thank you so much, Amalia, for all of this great information and for joining us today.

Amalia: Yeah. Glad to do it. This is one of the bright spots. I think it's a really easy, to get bogged down by just, you know, all the doom and gloom that's surrounding us. And so, you know, I'm obviously very, glad to have an opportunity to talk with you all. Want to make sure that we're, you know, sharing information, sharing resources, and that we're part of the solution.

Helen: Good, well that's a perfect segue. So you get to have a final sort of closing thought for our listeners. Any final advice or resources that you would like to offer as takeaways for the families who are listening.

Amalia: Yes. I wanna just send the message to, to, to parents that, we know that you're doing the best that you can, so, so don't second guess yourself. And then in terms of resources, you know, we do want to share, so UnidosUS, we, we've launched a couple of years ago, but have been scaling an education news multimedia site, that has resources for parents, educators, students, both in English and Spanish. And it's education news from a Latino perspective it's called, Progress Report. And the site is progressreport.CO. So that's progressreport.CO.

And you can find blogs, resources, curriculums, tips for the environment that we're in for coping, and, and learning and teaching. So that's something that we'd like to offer to everyone.

Helen: Awesome. Thank you. And lastly, are there any social media handles or web links you want folks to have from you or UnidosUS, generally.

Amalia: Sure, so UnidosUS, you can follow us on Twitter @weareUnidosUS and you'll find all of our resources and information and latest updates on what's going on in Congress too.

LaWanda: Awesome.

Amalia: And check our Twitter page because, around mid-June we are going to be hosting a nationwide tele-townhall specifically on education.

LaWanda: Awesome. We'll definitely post that for our listeners.

Amalia: Great. Thank you so much.

LaWanda: Yes, thank you again and to our audience tuning in at home or even while at work, thank you for listening. For more resources related to today's episode, check out

We also want to remind you that to help families ease the challenges of the pandemic, National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource webpage for parents, students, and educators. Learn more at

Helen: Thanks for tuning in and we'll, we'll talk to you next season.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.