Reopening schools during Covid-19? Educator and activist Maria Santiago-Valentin weighs in

As we near the end of summer, schools across the country are preparing for the start of a new year. But what will this school year look like for students and parents? The central debate among districts, educators, and families is whether reopening schools during Covid will be possible or safe. It may seem like a no-brainer, stay home! But the issue becomes more complicated when you begin to factor in the fact that not all parents have the luxury of being able to work from home during these times. The truth is, many families rely on schools as childcare during the work-week.

Reopening Schools

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The uncertain future of education

Maria Santiago-Valentin is an activist and educator with over 25 years of experience in her field. She is passionate about education, having taught in Puerto Rico, Connecticut, and New Jersey. A life-long learner herself, she knows and values the importance of a quality education.

“Education is a crucial foundation for our youth,” she says. “We need quality education to help younger generations pave the way toward better futures for our society.”

However, the future of education for our youth is currently uncertain as Covid threatens another school year.

Since spring, schools have been getting by through online instruction. This has helped lessen the spread of the virus by keeping student populations distant as they learn remotely from home. But this was never meant to be a permanent solution, and many school districts simply are not equipped to provide long-term online instruction.

“At the beginning I thought it was going to be a three-week lock-down, but it turned longer,” says Maria, reflecting back on the early days of the outbreak back in March. “I continued working for my school remotely during this time, I am a Child Study Team member in a public school. In the evenings I continued with my online classes with Walden University. I am in the last course before starting my dissertation. There were some inconveniences, but I adjusted to the new normal and I am very thankful to God to be here today.”

The debate: reopening schools during Covid

Online education has helped us all stay afloat during these uncertain times, but the big question on everyone’s minds is when will things ‘go back to normal?’

Reopening schools during Covid has brought on a fierce debate. Parents and teachers worry over health and safety, while others also struggle with the harsh reality of having to juggle their careers and parenting. Without schools, many working parents will have no one to look after their children should they have to attend online school.

Working from home

Working parents struggle to juggle their careers and parenting. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

In a recent press release, New Jersey’s teacher union head said it’s “not plausible” to reopen schools on time in September amid the coronavirus crisis, contending that Garden State’s educators, staff, and administrators don’t have nearly enough time to get ready.

As an educator and champion for Latino families, Maria weighs in on the issue of reopening schools during Covid.

“My take is that there are many issues that need to be taken into consideration,” says Maria. “Covid-19 can easily spike if a school district is not following precautions for children and staff, causing deaths. However, many working families, among them many Latinos, do not have a caregiver nor the money to pay a caregiver to leave their children with while working.”

fighting for education

Maria Santiago-Valentin, Educator and Activist for classroom inclusion and environmental sustainability

Maria has always fought for education, and she is prepared to continue that fight against the threat of Covid-19.

“I am an educator since 1992. I understand some teachers have sick relatives they have to take care of because of Covid-19. I understand we are getting paid with the taxes of working families. I understand we chose this career for the good and the bad. I feel we need to show up to work. Imagine a military not wanting to go to war. Our war is Covid-19. We show up y que Dios nos proteja.”

In the end though, this is a debate that has no clear solution. “Covid-19 is totally unpredictable,” says Maria, “and all the solutions we have are the ones prior to the pandemic. We need a plan for a new, green, sustainable normalcy.”

Fighting for a sustainable future

In addition to her work as an educator, Maria also works with various organizations as an activist and leader. During the pandemic, she was appointed administrator of the ALL Ladies League Chapter in Barcelona of the Women Economic Forum (WEF), Spain. “The WEF is an associate of ALL Ladies League (ALL), the world’s largest All-inclusive international women’s chamber and a movement for the Welfare, Wealth, and Well-being of ALL. As a superhighway of ‘Internet of women’​, ALL is a worldwide web of women’s leadership, friendship and entrepreneurship.”

Maria was appointed the 2020 Chairperson for the ALL New Jersey Chapter for Business Networking and was the recipient of the highest and most prestigious WEF Global Award by the judges of the WEF Bangalore Committee: “Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All.”

Maria’s commitment to making a difference in the world extends to the environment as well. As a devoted climate change advocate, Maria has co-founded the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance. Founded with 7 other Latinos living in the Diaspora and a member from Trinidad Tobago, the non-profit is an environmental justice organization for humanitarian relief, advocacy, and education purposes.

On the topic of climate change and it’s effect on the pandemic, Maria says there are a couple of intersections within the topics of climate change, environmental justice, and Covid-19.

classroom inclusion environment

Maria Santiago-Valentin, speaker at climate change rallies in New Jersey

“The impact of climate change in communities of color has shown how vulnerable our communities are to Covid-19 with health prevalent conditions that aggravates the situation. Environmental justice issues such as poor water quality, indoor/outdoor air pollution, and poor ventilation increase the spread of the disease. The climate crisis that is changing the intensity of the meteorological systems is intersecting with the public health system and Covid-19. If, in addition, we take into consideration the economic crisis, and the disparities in communities of color, the recovery of those communities is compromised. For example, systems like Isais, storms and fires. Florida had to close the Covid-19 testing sites prior to the storm. These events accelerated by climate change expose the level of preparedness and response our governments and agencies must deal with both circumstances at the same time (Covid-19 and a hurricane).”

These are also the same communities likely to be the most affected by the issue of not reopening schools during Covid. Facing environmental and economic difficulties, these communities will continue to be hit the hardest by the pandemic.

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While there are no definite solutions to these issues, we can only continue to work toward a better future that will help and protect all, including our most vulnerable communities. That is what Maria will continue to do across all her platforms, as an educator, environmental activist, and leader.

Through her experiences during the pandemic, Maria has learned not to take like and routines for granted, since the future is uncertain and “to thank God everyday for the miracle of life.”

Victoria Arena

About Victoria Arena

Victoria Arena is a writer and student, passionate about writing, literature, and women's studies. She is bilingual, fluent in both English and Spanish. In 2017, she received her Associates in Fine Arts for Creative Writing from Brookdale Community College. Now, she is working toward her Bachelor's in English Literature at Montclair State University. Along with literature, Victoria is interested in Gender and Sexuality Studies, which she is pursuing as a minor, focusing closely on women's issues, gender inequality, and LGBT issues. These studies provide her with a feminist lens, which influences her work from both fiction to academic writings.
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