Guns, anti-LGBTQ+ policy and teacher shortages bring challenges as the new school year begins

Arne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education, tells theGrio that fewer students are enrolling in schools across the country largely because "teachers and public education haven't been supported."

The new school year is underway in most states across the country and educators, parents and students are doing what they can to make this school year a success despite the challenges that lay ahead.

Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, told theGrio that several factors go into play to ensure students have a successful learning experience. This year, she is focused on “building back,” “nurturing school communities” and creating a safe environment for Baltimore City students to be able to thrive.

Children riding home from school on a school bus watch as Baltimore residents celebrate at the corner of West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In recent years, teachers, parents and students have been concerned about school safety following an uptick in school shootings. The nation was most recently rocked by the Uvalde, Texas school shooting where a lone gunman opened fire, killing 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School on May 24.

Arne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education, told theGrio that due to the lack of gun reform children are “paying a devastating price.” 

“As long as guns are so prevalent, everywhere [and] easy to access, the hard truth is that our kids, our schools will never be safe,” said Duncan, who served under the Obama administration.  “Just like our restaurants, our movie theaters, our concerts cannot be safe from the plague of gun violence unless we do something about guns where we can involve the community.”

It is not a race or class issue, says the former education secretary. “None of our communities – rich, poor, Black, white, Latino, it doesn’t matter – none of our communities are as safe as we would like them to be because they’re just way, way too many guns, easy access to guns in our nation.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House June 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told theGrio that President Joe Biden has implemented steps to ensure school safety.

“The president has put forth billions of dollars, more than $300 billion from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to make sure that there is safety, that communities were able to hire police officers to make sure that there was some protection, that they felt safe and had safe communities,” said Jean-Pierre.

While some schools are focused on safety, schools in states like Georgia, Florida, Kansas and Mississippi are trying to combat teacher shortages. 

Duncan believes the teacher shortage in those states are directly connected to a “lack of support” for educators. He said he worries, “about the long-term pipeline of teachers.” 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks during a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee on Capitol Hill March 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

“There are less and less students enrolling in schools of education across the country. I think, in part, because teachers and public education haven’t been supported,” he said. 

In an attempt to counter the shortage, the Biden administration is allocating $130 billion from the American Rescue Plan to hire new teachers. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona exclusively told theGrio that the federal funding will also provide “signing bonuses” for teachers “to recruit [and] to get your high school students and your paraeducators on a track to become teachers.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, during a recent press briefing, told theGrio that Secretary Cardona is “going to continue to work with local governments and local schools” to make sure that funds from ARP are being used to hire teachers. 

Miguel Cardona
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss reopening schools during Covid-19 at Capitol Hill on September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash- Pool/Getty Images)

The Department of Education and the agency’s civil rights division are also working to combat discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students in Georgia and Florida. In Georgia, for example, there are efforts to pull school lunches from children who identify as LGBTQ. 

“To those states that are creating environments that are less inclusive, are picking on students who are LGBTQ,” said Cardona. “It’s sad that across the country we’re seeing an uptick of this from elected leaders. But I have confidence in our educators. I have confidence in our parents, and we’re not going to put up with it.”

Even with the declaration by the secretary of education, Florida Christian schools are asking gay and transgender students to leave its classrooms. 

Florida State Senator Shevrin Jones, who is the state’s first openly gay senator, told theGrio that, “Florida is the breeding ground of Christian nationalism ideology.” 

President Joe Biden speaks from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Washington, as he announces that a U.S. airstrike killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

“The fact that you have Grace Christian School that has come up with a policy like this, I can guarantee you that this will be the start of what’s going to happen to other institutions leaving LGBTQ youth no place to go,” said Jones. 

Press secretary Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration condemns the latest actions from the schools.

“You know how this president feels about inequities … he’s been very clear about making sure that we protect young people, especially in the LGBTQ community,” she said. “This is clearly an issue that we’re monitoring and we will continue to condemn those types of practices or behavior.”

Despite the challenges plaguing the current school year, Cardona told theGrio, “I am filled with optimism that this will be the best year yet.”

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