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Federal Q&A

Q&A: Rep. Jahana Hayes on Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories and the COVID-19 Aid Schools Need

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 29, 2021 11 min read
Rep. Jahana Hayes , D-Conn., addresses delegates during the Democratic convention for the 5th District in Waterbury, Conn., on May 14, 2018.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., is entering her second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. The 2016 National Teacher of the Year has served on the House education committee and has quickly become an influential voice on K-12 issues in Congress.

We spoke with Hayes on Jan. 28 about what educators and students need most during the coronavirus pandemic, what vaccinating teachers should and shouldn’t mean when it comes to resuming in-person classes, and what she thinks of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief proposal. In the following Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, she also shared her message to students about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and her views on the appointment of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to the House education committee.

Is it fair for the public to expect that, in general, schools will reopen their doors once teachers, and possibly other school staff, receive the coronavirus vaccine? In your view, what if anything else needs to be in place for educators and students for that to happen?

The direct answer to that question is no, I don’t think it’s fair. I think that many educators, like everyone else, want schools to reopen. We recognize that in-person education is superior to any virtual or hybrid method. There should be a robust strategy for testing as necessary. They should have a guarantee that personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies will be available. Many educators buy these things out of their own pockets, and that’s not something they should have to worry about during a pandemic. There should also be a contingency plan if there is an outbreak so that, if school has to shut down for a few days, there’s a plan in place. And that would have to ensure that all students have connected devices, that educators have professional development on how to teach virtually or in a hybrid setting.

So I think all of those things need to be in place to support educators and school communities in the work that they’re doing, and also to support parents in helping their children. I know whenever there’s a question about stretching budgets or, where do we make cuts, things like social workers and paraprofessionals, school nurses, all of those school support staff, those are the first things on the chopping block.

I think we have to address all of those things in a multifaceted way if we want our schools and ultimately our economy to reopen safely.

Do you think that President Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan for K-12 education does enough and has the right priorities? And what are you focused on with regard to those priorities in Congress?

I’m happy to see that President Biden is surrounding himself with people who, first of all, value public education and offer insight and perspective in these areas. I’m not sure it does enough. But I’m encouraged by the fact that, as more things are brought to his attention, he’s including them in his plans. And that’s all we can ask of any leader. And I think he’s actively seeking out input to make sure that his plans for reopening are as robust as possible.

I reintroduced legislation, the Save Education Jobs Act, to ensure that we are investing in our students and making sure that schools don’t have to make those tough decisions on where they cut their budget and what professionals they can keep on. I think long term, we have to make those investments now. It’s refreshing to hear the president talk in those terms. I’m excited that he has made reopening schools and the commitment to children and educators, and just safe school environments, a top priority of his administration. Literally everything that has gone up the chain has been given serious consideration and thoughtful input.

I think that many educators, like everyone else, want schools to reopen. We recognize that in-person education is superior to any virtual or hybrid method.

I think it’s impossible to have a complete plan, because every day we’re learning more and more about this virus or different information comes up, or the science and the data drive us in a different direction. All we can do is be proactive and responsive. I truly believe that the Biden administration is attempting to do that.

You represent Newtown, Conn., in Congress [the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012]. You’ve asked that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, not be seated on the House education committee due to her comments in support of conspiracy theories about school shootings. Can you talk about how your constituents, maybe especially those in Newtown, feel about comments like Greene’s and just what it says to you about where things are in Congress?

I think it’s devastating and heartbreaking for my constituents. It retraumatizes them, and not just the parents and families in Newtown. I was a classroom teacher when Sandy Hook happened, and there are so many children who participate in lock-down drills, who have experienced school shootings and hearing about these things in the news, and almost have, I guess, post-traumatic stress disorder associated with school shootings. A woman reached out to my office and said, her daughter heard firecrackers and literally got under the table. She was just reminded that, wait, this is what they’re learning in schools.

So the fact those types of conspiracy theories could be normalized at the highest levels of office I think is so incredibly dangerous. In my district, it is still so incredibly raw because we’re still grieving, we’re still grieving the events of that day. For anyone to suggest that it didn’t happen or that it was a false-flag [operation] or staged is just so incredibly hurtful. I think on this committee, more specifically, we are tasked with making environments safe for kids to learn. We can have a healthy debate about the way we go about it, or the Second Amendment, or gun violence. Congress is the place where we can discuss and debate those things in a healthy fashion. But it is incredibly dangerous, damaging and hurtful for a member of Congress to sit on this committee and not even believe that these things are happening and that children aren’t experiencing trauma.

"The fact those types of conspiracy theories could be normalized at the highest levels of office I think is so incredibly dangerous."

I am at a loss for words for why Kevin McCarthy [the House minority leader] and Republican leadership would select this committee, of all committees, to have her as their representative for the way we respond to children’s education in this country.

If you were teaching students in a classroom right now, how would you explain or talk about the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? And how would you respond to students concerned about where the country is headed and uncertain about who they can trust in government, the media, and other institutions?

Oh my goodness, I think I’m still processing the events of Jan. 6. And I always think, what would I talk about with kids? I tried to create a space where kids could have healthy discussion, where we could have dissenting opinions, and really try to teach young people that it’s not my job to get you to agree with my position. My job is to give you critical thinking skills and help you articulate your position and defend your position. And I think the attack on the Capitol was a direct assault on those ideas and those principles.

We have a system by which we have a place to disagree. We have elections where we can elect leaders. We have a peaceful transfer of power. We also have the ability to change the process when we don’t agree with it. But to attack the Congress—I think it’s so much bigger than a person or a party—to attack our institutions, I think is something that I’ve never really had to deal with on this scale in the classroom. That I think is something where I would have been excited [to] hear students’ perspectives and their points of views.

When I taught immediately following Sept. 11, it was different. There was a unifying voice in our country that said: We have to respond, we are all Americans. And there was just a national rebuke for the actions that we saw. But this was different. This happened internally. It was American citizens who attacked American institutions. So I can imagine just the comments, the sentiments, just span the spectrum. I think there are going to be so many teachable moments that come out of our classrooms. But I would also just remind students that, I don’t want you to feel helpless or hopeless after watching this. What I would like you to be is inspired and encouraged to say: What can I do to ensure that my position is heard, or that this never happens again, or that people have a way to disagree that is more respectful.

It also opens the doors to some really heavy conversations that we need to have in this country about how we are dealing with things like white supremacy, how we are responding to, I guess, just festering dissent that is happening in pockets in our communities. We really have a unique opportunity to come up with workable solutions around those things.

This morning, I met with a group of high school students [in] a civics class. I always try to say yes when I’m invited by students, and it just refills my cup, and it is so encouraging. Young people do not lack imagination. My students would just say, well why don’t we just change it, or why can’t we fix it? I would say, that’s a good question, now figure out how that happens.

The House education committee Chairman Bobby Scott has said that, in his view, states should still administer federally mandated exams and hold schools accountable this year, during the pandemic. What’s your position on any waivers or flexibility schools and educators should get from testing and accountability that’s in federal law?

I’m not sure I agree with that position. In my state, I represent a district that has a really large equity gap. I have many of the most exclusive boarding schools in the world in my district, and also some of the lowest-performing districts. There are so many school districts that have not been able to connect with students or who have had trouble because of the digital divide or connectivity issues. There are so many students who come from households where parents lost jobs and they’ve had to move and are now transient, and are just dealing with these incredibly traumatic events. To try to use that information to gauge the progress of a school community I think is unfair.

At the beginning of the pandemic, these teachers were hailed as heroes, and lauded for taking on the herculean task of switching into virtual and hybrid learning. And now that they’re asking for some assurance that they’ll be safe, the conversation is shifting to: Teachers are being selfish.

I think there is some value in collecting this type of data because then we have a measure to try to figure out, this is where we are, almost like a marker. But this testing data should not be used in any punitive way, or to restrict or limit funding to districts or to classrooms, because on the other side of this, our students are going to need more, not less.

In my church, I know literally two dozen people that have lost a member of their family to this pandemic, in some families more than one [person]. So for kids to be expected to perform at their best during this time just lacks consideration. It is really where the adults and the educators have to step in and translate for them. A lot of times kids have the information, they just need for us to pull it out of them. Trying to do that at home, on a computer, all alone, or even in a school setting after a year of learning loss, I don’t know if that’s the best alternative.

What I have recommended to the committee and even through legislation, is that we try to close the summer slide, or these gaps, and invest more money in summer school programs, make it available to more students, not [fewer].

We need to make sure we have after-school and community resources, especially for our Title I districts, to try to close those gaps that were created by this pandemic and get kids back on track so they can catch up, and then move forward with things like standardized testing and those metrics. But kids should not be further punished for the impacts and the results of this pandemic.

Do you think that teachers should get a priority of some kind or be at the front of the line, so to speak, in some way when it comes to receiving the vaccine? Or do you think it should be up to state and local leaders based on their own circumstances?

I absolutely think teachers should get some kind of priority. They should first of all be categorized as essential workers. I’ve seen ... in some districts they had testing sites, and it was a very seamless process, and in other places, teachers had to, on their own, find a place to get tested [and] wait several days for the results.

I think it’s very confusing for educators to get conflicting information that kids can’t gather at an after-school party or a sporting event, but it’s safe to be in the classroom. There are some parents who are working in health-care fields. Or we can’t really monitor people’s behavior outside of the classroom. [It’s important] to make sure that we are basing the information on science, and making sure that teachers have really good information, and also that they should feel safe.

I do not agree with the idea of, when teachers are critical of or question what the next steps are, the response is: Put kids first. I think teachers always put children first. And [teachers] wanting to ensure that they and their families are safe is not jumping the line or dismissing the needs of students. I think we have to balance both of those things.

At the beginning of the pandemic, these teachers were hailed as heroes, and lauded for taking on the herculean task of switching into virtual and hybrid learning. And now that they’re asking for some assurance that they’ll be safe, the conversation is shifting to: Teachers are being selfish. That’s just not fair. We need to support our educators in the classroom. We need to give them the tools that they need to ensure that students are safe and that they have a safe environment for learning.

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