Teaching Profession

National Education Association’s Annual Convention Goes Virtual

By Madeline Will — April 21, 2020 3 min read
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For decades, thousands of teachers from across the country have gathered over the Fourth of July holiday to discuss the business of the nation’s largest teachers’ union. But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the union’s delegates will stay home.

The National Education Association’s board of directors voted Monday evening to cancel in-person attendance at its annual Representative Assembly, and instead will conduct a scaled-down virtual convention that focuses on only three action items: voting on an endorsement of Joe Biden in the general election; electing union officers, including a new president; and approving the union’s budget.

The NEA’s Representative Assembly is the world’s largest democratic deliberative assembly. The bulk of the actions that typically are conducted during the meeting—including voting on new business items, which are delegate-proposed directives for the union to pursue for one year—will be postponed until next year.

The changes were recommended by the executive committee, led by NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. The NEA will likely lose millions of dollars in cancellation costs.

“We cannot take the risk of educators becoming infected and spreading the virus to students, their families and colleagues, or their communities,” Eskelsen García said in a statement.

About 6,000 delegates were expected to come to Atlanta July 2-6, and meet in the convention center, which is now being used as a makeshift hospital for patients recovering from COVID-19. In a letter to the board, first obtained by union analyst Mike Antonucci, Eskelsen García wrote that the committee considered pushing the convention back until August or moving to a different city.

“We imagined having to purchase daily protective masks, gowns, and gloves for thousands of delegates and staff on the floor and the problems with close quarters on shuttle buses, elevators, and restaurants,” she wrote. “We pondered how to adequately protect delegates who are immune compromised or in other high-risk categories for contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.”

Holding the Representative Assembly, even later in the summer, seemed like a public-health risk, Eskelsen García concluded. And conducting four days of business online—complete with lengthy debates and numerous motions, substitutions, and modifications on measures—wasn’t possible either, she said. A virtual convention would also limit delegates without access to WiFi or technology from participating fully.

Instead, delegates will vote on the three main action items with paper ballots by mail. NEA leaders will hold a virtual open hearing for delegates to review the proposed budget and make recommendations. Later, delegates will be able to participate in limited debate over the final budget proposal before casting their ballots.

This year is Eskelsen García’s last as president, after serving two three-year terms. NEA Vice President Becky Pringle is running to replace her against long-shot candidates Mark Airgood, a special education teacher in Oakland, Calif., and Mark Norberg, an 8th grade teacher in Burbank, Calif.

There was also likely to have been plenty of discussion about the NEA’s role in the upcoming presidential election. Last month, the NEA endorsed Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, although some members weren’t happy with the endorsement process. In past presidential election years, including 2008 and 2016, the Democratic nominee has addressed NEA delegates at the Representative Assembly.

The other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, has its biennial meeting planned for July 27-30 in Houston. More than 3,000 educators attended in 2018. The AFT executive council will decide next month how to proceed.

In a statement, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the council is considering whether “the timing would allow a hybrid model in which some members can convene online, while others are face-to-face.”

Image: Educators and union leaders gathered in Minneapolis in 2018 for the National Education Association’s representative assembly. —Scott Iskowitz/National Education Association

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.