Students get on buses at the end of the school day at Wentworth Intermediate School. (Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer) Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

SCARBOROUGH — Wentworth School teacher Krystal Ash-Cuthbert joined leaders from the National PTA and National Education Association on May 14 to discuss challenges educators, parents, and students are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 14, over Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, Ash-Cuthbert talked about specific problems Scarborough Schools are facing during the pandemic, many of which are affecting low-income families the most.

On the call with Ash-Cuthbert were Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA, and Leslie Boggs, the president of the National PTA.

The purpose of the conference was to let Congress know that students need support during this pandemic and also to bring real human faces to the crisis, Garcia said.

“Our primary driver in all of this is the health and safety of students, their families, and the educators who serve them,” she said.

A poll conducted by NEA reported that more than half of the 800 parents/guardians who participated are concerned about keeping their child’s education on track.

“Educators who work in schools with higher levels of poverty report lower class attendance on virtual platforms, and feel distance learning will be less effective for their students,” the NEA said. “They believe that closing inequity and opportunity gaps must be a top priority.”

Education professionals need to be able to ensure that all students are able to thrive in a “digital learning world,” Ash-Cuthbert said.

“Scarborough is known for its economic success and very affluent community,” she said. “What isn’t as well-known is that really it’s a community of haves and have-nots … We have $3 million mansions right on the shoreline, and then we have the working poor who are living in the hotels once the tourist season is over. We have a huge diversity in its own little microcosm of the community.”

Students may have access to school-provided laptops in Maine, but the ability to access the internet at home is another issue, Ash-Cuthbert said.

Another challenge for families is that not all parents are at home during the pandemic to help their students with schoolwork, she said.

“I think about the essential workers, our folks at the Hannaford Distribution Center …,” she said. “Those parents are essential workers so they’re going to work, so they’re not home to help their kids. So there’s this really great, huge divide of the haves and have-nots even when on the outside, things look just fine.”

Scarborough schools also face potential budget cuts, proposed anywhere from $3 million to $5 million right now, Ash-Cuthbert said.

This would cut 17 positions, meaning more students would be placed together in rooms or buses, as bus drivers may also be cut, she said.

“(There would be) more kids on a bus when all medical professionals are saying less social contact,” Ash-Cuthbert said. “It’s like our budget is working in reverse on what we’re being told is best medically. So when I’ve been thinking about how are we going to start school back up in the fall I think about what I tell my kids my job is.”

She continued, “I said, ‘as a teacher I’ve got three responsibilities: the first one is to keep you safe and healthy. Second one is to give you the best possible education I can, and the third is to teach you to be a good character.’ If I can’t tell my kids they’re safe with me, I’m not going to get to number two and I’m not going to get to number three. ”

During the week of May 11, the House Democrats introduced a new coronavirus relief bill, said the NEA, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEREOS Act) in order to provide more resources to educators and students during this pandemic.

It would specify $100 billion for K-12 and higher education as well as $915 billion in-state and local aid to address budget gaps that could be used to help public schools and college campuses, said the NEA.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on and presented many challenges for students, families, teachers and schools,” Boggs said. “It is critical that Congress address the needs of students, families and schools and specifically provide funding to ensure all students can connect to the internet to continue their education during this time as well as provide emergency funding for the Statewide Family Engagement Centers grant program.

“Emergency funding for family engagement during this health crisis will help teachers be the conduit for learning at home and provide families with simple and effective activities they can do with their children, so that families aren’t overwhelmed by the myriad of resources available.”

The NEA announced that it would be launching a national advocacy campaign, scheduled to run until May 31. More information is available at nea.org/covidaction.

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