It’s not often that a teacher gets a chance to ask the President of the United States a question in person.
But that’s what happened to Justin Belot, a School of Education alum. Belot was one of a group of people invited to take part in the CNN Town Hall in Milwaukee with President Joe Biden on Feb. 17. He had responded to a note from the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association about the opportunity, and ended up being one of those selected to go to the event to ask his question. (Joel Berkowitz, faculty member in Foreign Languages and Literature also was able to ask a question).
Of course, Belot, who teaches high school English at Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education (Obama SCTE) in Milwaukee, took the opportunity to ask the president about the push to reopen schools for in-person learning.
“While there are numerous warnings not to be in large groups or to have dinner parties or small parties,” Belot asked, “why is it okay to put students in close proximity to each other for an entire day, day after day? With large class sizes and outdated ventilation systems, how and when do you propose this to occur? Finally, do you believe all staff should be vaccinated before doing so?”
The president responded that he was advocating following CDC guidelines. “Nobody is suggesting, including the CDC in this recent report, that you have large classes, congested classes. It’s smaller classes, more ventilation, making sure that everybody has masks and is socially distanced, meaning you have less … fewer students in one room.”
Biden said he advocated making sure all the staff in the school – sanitation and maintenance workers and cafeteria workers as well as teachers—be vaccinated. He also said he advocated avoiding the congregation of a lot of people — getting on a school bus, for example. “It’s about needing to be able to socially distance, smaller classes, more protection.”
Biden added that people working in schools should be on the preferred list to get a vaccination. (Wisconsin has announced teachers will be eligible to sign up starting March 1).
Belot said he asked that particular question because as a teacher he was concerned about the way politicians on both the state and federal level were rushing to try to force schools to re-open.
“There’s this push to reopen schools when scientifically it’s not the safest thing to do. I wanted to see where the president stood.”
He was only partially satisfied with the president’s answer, Belot said later. “He kind of gave a half answer…he kind of danced around it.”
He felt the answer didn’t really address the challenges faced by urban schools with limited resources.
“I get what he was saying about large class sizes, but the reality is that we do have large class sizes. How do you cut those classes in half or thirds? How do you do that when you don’t have the space or staff to do that?”
Belot, who has been at Obama SCTE since 2014, said he’s dedicated to ensuring that students keep getting the best education possible.
Belot was a leader of the Student Wisconsin Education Association when he was at UWM. He’s found his passion in teaching English and has been a teacher-leader at Obama SCTE and with the UWM Writing Project. He’s also been a cooperating teacher for School of Education student teachers.
Like other teachers, he and his students have faced challenges in adapting to virtual learning – MPS schools are online this year. “It’s been hard adapting lessons to an online environment, keeping them engaging and trying to create a warm and welcoming environment.”
But Belot said he’s dedicated to ensuring that students keep getting the best education possible.
“I like writing and helping students find their voice. That’s what keeps me going all day. I want them to develop their skills and work towards their goals and find something they’re passionate about whether or not it’s reading or writing.”
And he’s managed to cope with the criticism that’s sometimes come from the public about how teachers are managing in the pandemic. “People say we need to get back to work ‘like the rest of us.’ Teachers are working just as hard as ever, even harder learning to manage online classrooms. Teachers are struggling and so are students. It’s very frustrating to hear people have such lack of respect for the profession when we’re here doing the best we can.”
Still, Belot said he was thrilled to be able to take part in the CNN Town Hall and speak for teachers. And the reaction was mostly positive. “The minute I sat down, my phone was blowing up with messages on Facebook and Twitter. All but one was positive.”