A Former Principal Now In Congress Thinks Democrats Need A New Message On Schools In The Time Of COVID

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat and part of "the Squad," sat down for a Q&A with BuzzFeed News to discuss possible vaccine mandates in schools.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks during a roundtable discussion at Mercy College on June 14, 2021.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whose background includes 20 years in the public school system and more than a decade as a principal, says the Democratic Party does “not yet” have a compelling message on schools in the age of COVID.

“​​So I’m biased, but I think education is the most important issue in our country, and I think we should always be talking about it,” Bowman said in an interview this week. “And because we don’t talk about it enough, we harm ourselves as a country.”

That also means talking about vaccinating kids. The first-year member of Congress from New York and sitting member of the House Committee on Education and Labor said the onus is on the entire Democratic Party, including President Joe Biden, to engage with communities and have discussions about why there is so much hesitancy around the COVID vaccine. It’s notable for a Democrat to be calling out his party on ineffective messaging on a major issue with midterm elections less than a year out, when the party in power historically faces headwinds at the ballot box. And he says he supports vaccine mandates for students in public school systems.

“There are many vaccines that babies have to take and many immunizations that need to be done before going to school. This now needs to be a part of that cocktail, because we are living in a new normal,” Bowman said as he sat in his Capitol Hill office, where a photo of the progressive group of lawmakers he belongs to known as “the Squad” is placed prominently, taken on the day Bowman was sworn in.

His comments, made in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, come at a time when schools have become a flashpoint in politics. And as vaccine access for children broadens, skepticism or outright antagonism over COVID vaccination is not letting up. “Republicans have made critical race theory, vaccines, vaccine mandates and disempowering parents part of their platform. You know, it’s part of the platform that led to McAuliffe losing in Virginia,” Bowman said.

Though vaccine mandates in schools are still not widespread (the New York City Public Schools system where Bowman taught and the largest in the country, for example, has not implemented such a requirement, though the city has announced a mandate concerning children and “high-risk extracurriculars”), they have already become contentious in other areas. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in early October that there would be a statewide mandate for schoolchildren following FDA authorization for the vaccinations, the first state to plan such a sweeping requirement. This reportedly prompted statewide protests.

Given how narrowly Democrats hold Congress, it’s unlikely there will be federal action around vaccine mandates for students attending public schools. That would more likely be determined by the states and school districts. Yet Bowman says it’s imperative that the Democratic Party be able to have the conversations with constituents that will get them to a point where they will trust policies like vaccine mandates.

BuzzFeed News spoke with Bowman about schools for nearly an hour, ranging in topics from vaccine mandates to other changes he thinks need to happen to the way education is looked at in the age of COVID. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

BuzzFeed News: Do you think that vaccine mandates are a good idea for schools and schoolchildren?

Bowman: Yes

BuzzFeed News: Can you tell me a little bit about why?

Bowman: So our kids have already lost so much. So much learning time, so much social time, so much of what being a normal child is about, that in order for them to come together again, and get back to the new normal, which even post-COVID is going to be different, everyone needs to be vaccinated for that. It’s similar to many vaccines that babies have to take and many immunizations that need to be done before going to school. This now needs to be a part of that cocktail because we are living in a new normal. We are living in a COVID-19 new normal. So yes, should be a part of it, and it’s not just school, right? It’s playing in the park, it’s gymnastics class, it’s other extracurricular activities that kids do socially with each other, which is so important to their development. In order to get back to that in a safe way for everyone, vaccines are going to be needed.

BuzzFeed News: The flip side of vaccine mandates is that there are going to be a lot of parents who are going to be hesitant about their kids getting vaccines. So I wanted to ask about your ideas for educating kids who may not be vaccinated, many probably because their parents won’t want them to be, and how to make sure that they have access to the classroom?

Bowman: Vaccine or not, I don’t know what school systems are going to do, but generally speaking, the mindset and behavior of an educator is to educate every child that’s in front of them to the best of their ability, so that absolutely has to happen. This goes back to, how are we engaging and educating parents and kids to feel more comfortable taking the vaccine? I think we can do a lot more work there. But yeah, in terms of religious exemptions, in terms of other reasons why people will refuse, those things are still in play, those things were in play before COVID, and parents were making certain decisions. And some parents, because they didn’t get the other cocktail of immunizations that they needed for public schools, decided to go other routes with their children’s education. But every child’s got a right to a quality education in whatever setting that the parent chooses for them. Me, as a public school educator, I’m biased towards getting kids back into public schools as soon as possible.

BuzzFeed News: Do you support some of those exemptions if it’s the difference between whether a child will be able to attend class or not?

Bowman: Yeah, I mean, it’s up to the parent. Parent’s voice in education is vital to their child’s education and their child’s development, so who am I to tell a parent that they should or shouldn’t do anything? And that’s where it gets complicated, because, in my opinion, children should be vaccinated and children should return to school. But if a parent chooses not to, that’s their choice.

BuzzFeed News: Educators and support staff right now are exhausted, right, I’m sure you know this—

Bowman: Yes, my wife is a third-grade teacher in a public school right now. So yes.

BuzzFeed News: How does that factor into actually implementing policy like vaccine mandates for schoolchildren? What is the toll right now on teachers, staff, faculty — how does that affect in actually implementing and carrying out?

Bowman: You know, a lot of teacher exhaustion right now is because of the stress related to not knowing if children are vaccinated or not, or if parents are vaccinated or not. So a vaccine mandate would reduce a lot of that stress and help teachers to feel more comfortable and at ease as they try to deliver their instruction. So it would help the exhaustion, it would help the stress, and it would help some of the unknowns that are in place now, especially if you’re teaching in a community with a high community spread and low vaccination rates, where my wife right now teaches in a community like that. Teachers are at tremendous risk right now. So a mandate and parents following that would help reduce the risk, and reduce the stress, and help teachers to be more effective instructors ultimately, because it’s hard to be a great teacher when you’re stressed out.

BuzzFeed News: Schools are very much a political flashpoint, and that matters when it comes to elections. And so, how much do you think schools will consume the midterms that are now officially on the horizon?

Bowman: A lot, I think. Because Republicans have made critical race theory, vaccines, vaccine mandates, and disempowering parents part of their platform. You know, it’s part of the platform that led to McAuliffe losing in Virginia. So I think a lot, and I think we will respond as a party, and I know I will respond personally to that. Because we have to have sensible, reasonable conversations about what happens in our schools and communities and how we educate our children. And flashpoint is not a word that should be associated with education, because that, the word itself, is harmful to the learning process, which is more methodical, and deliberate, and warm, and engaging. That’s how learning should happen in schools. Flashpoint is like shock treatment education, which is not what we need for kids, and not what we need for families. A lot of this stuff is very high-voltage stuff, where parents are like, really passionate about this stuff. And it takes leaders who have the courage to engage parents and listen and have difficult conversations but toward the ultimate goal of making sure your child is safe and receives an excellent education.

BuzzFeed News: Do you think Democrats right now have a compelling message on schools in the age of COVID?

Bowman: Well I’m a Democrat, so yes [laughs]. I have one [laughs]. At this moment, not yet. Not yet. But we’re working on that. We’re going to help them out. We’re going to help the party out. But not yet. And again, it’s not easy, I get it. But we will have it soon. I’m hoping. I’m hopeful.

BuzzFeed News: What should be the national Democrats’ message on schools?

Bowman: Even before the pandemic, but especially now, as we talk about schools, we have to talk about care. Care and schools need to be part of the same conversation. And everything that our schools should be doing right now has to be rooted in care for kids and for families and care in response to a global pandemic. So when people are enraged about critical race theory or vaccine mandates or any of that, it’s about care for your kids. Our kids. These are all our kids. That’s the compelling message: These are our kids.

BuzzFeed News: Should national Democrats talk about schools and risk letting it become even more politicized, or leave it to states and local school systems?

Bowman: Yes we should. We have to. So I’m biased, but I think education is the most important issue in our country, and I think we should always be talking about it, and because we don’t talk about it enough, we harm ourselves as a country, overall, and then individuals harm themselves, and communities continue to suffer harm because education isn’t at the top of the agenda. It’s below economy, it’s below gun rights, it’s below other things. But we, nationally, education should be a part of the Democratic platform in terms of the national conversation, yes, especially now.

BuzzFeed News: I want you to imagine that you’re having a conversation with one of the parents you would have interacted with in your past job. What’s the best argument in defense of pursuing student vaccinations, and how do you make that a message that would resonate with the typical parent, parent/voter?

Bowman: Well, the question assumes the parent is resistant to vaccines, right? So the first thing I would do is ask them why. Ask them how they feel about vaccines, vaccine mandates, and why are they resistant? And I would spend a lot of time listening. Then I would share what we know of the safety of the vaccine. And how it was developed, and how it’s been tested, and how that development and test compare to other vaccines that we already take that have been developed and tested, and how their child being at school supports their individual development and collective development of all children in that school and community.

The first thing I would do is listen. Because a lot of times, we see these extreme reactions because no one is listening to anyone. We’re just telling people what to do, and commanding them what to do and we’re not listening. So the first thing I would ask is why, tell me what’s going on, tell me how you’re feeling, let’s have a conversation, let’s talk. And a lot of times when people get it out, they feel heard. They begin to develop trust in the person they’re talking to, and that trust is key to them ultimately deciding to get a vaccine or not, without any mandate. Mandates are a heavy-handed approach to, obviously a crisis, but sometimes I actually empathize with the resistance to that heavy-handed approach when you haven’t done the empathy work of actually listening and having a conversation.

BuzzFeed News: When you say the Democratic Party has to do more, what entities, what people, what party leaders do you think the onus is on?

Bowman: All of us. All of us, right? All of us. The party is asking us to have events to celebrate the recent passage of the infrastructure bill. Prior to that they wanted us to have a series of events celebrating the American Rescue Plan and child tax credit. Every member of Congress should have events around COVID vaccine hesitancy, to really gather data on why communities are hesitant. That’s events, that’s talking to people, that’s just engaging your constituents on this issue. And it’s all of us, and it’s on the president.

BuzzFeed News: Is there any way to separate policies from politics? Or does policy just need to be crafted knowing that there will be blowback if it’s in the name of keeping kids safe?

Bowman: First we gotta talk to each other. I had a conversation with a group of parents who were organizing around a remote option in terms of when schools were reopening, these parents wanted a remote option. And their argument was that some kids did better on remote, some kids weren’t ready to go back to school in large groups, with the pandemic unresolved, the virus unresolved, so they wanted a remote option. And the city at this time did not give a remote option. And they kind of forced everyone back to school. And I thought then and still think now that a remote option should be provided in all school districts. Because there are kids who, vaccine aside, deal with different social anxieties, where large groups in classrooms, large groups in schools, is really uncomfortable for them, and as a result they don’t perform well academically. So remote option can be good for certain kids. So I thought that was something that could have been provided that wasn’t. And that could still be provided.

BuzzFeed News: What should we do for all of the students who have faced disruptions in learning because of the pandemic? What needs to be done to help make up for that?

Bowman: We need more teachers. We need more learning spaces. So not just a traditional classroom but learning in spaces that are outside of that. We need more summer learning that’s targeted. All of those things need to happen, but it’s not just the cognitive academic learning, it’s also the social and emotional learning that we need to respond to as well. And more teachers helps to lower class size, and then using alternative learning spaces helps to lower class size. Also something called experiential learning. Kids learning outside about the environment, in the environment. Experiential learning, where they’re actually learning by doing in the environment. That’s really critical.

BuzzFeed News: What should we be doing to make learning more resilient in the future against something like the pandemic?

Bowman: When I started teaching, I didn’t have a teacher certification. A state certification. I just had a college degree. And New York City had a program that allowed me, with a college degree, to get a license to teach, and then I started teaching right away. If there were a way to have people who have college degrees who might be interested in teaching get this license and start teaching kids, that could be really powerful, and really helpful. And that’s important because more teachers, they’re not just falling off trucks.

There could be mutual aid pods to support kids and their continued learning, even during a pandemic. And this was happening in different parts of the district, in my district, and the country as well. Home-school networks have like a framework on how to do some of this. And this is what we need to see. We need to see like, we got public schools, Catholic schools, private schools, charter schools, home schools, we got all these different models. The models have to sort of feed off each other to continue to support our kids, as we respond to COVID.

BuzzFeed News: What am I not thinking to ask you?

Bowman: Professional development. So, a huge part of being a great educator is always developing your craft. So it needs to be investments in professional development for teachers to cope with the first pandemic in 100 years. Right, like how do you deal with that? Like, my wife is at home trying to plan traditional lessons while managing the stress of not knowing if her kids or families are vaccinated or not, worried about putting her health at risk and the health of her family at risk. And then she’s being asked to do a mental health survey with her kids and then interpret the results with each kid so that she can be better at supporting the mental health of her kids. She got one webinar on how to do this effectively, so there needs to be a real investment in teacher professional development.

And the last thing I’ll say is, how we’re training preservice teachers right now has to completely change because the world has changed due to the pandemic.

With reporting by Dan Vergano.


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