The 74 Interview: After Two Years of Pandemic Schooling, Nashville Parent Advocate Sonya Thomas Asks, ‘What Has Changed?’

Sonya Thomas, left, executive director of Nashville Propel talked to attendees at a March 2019 parent summit. (Care of Sonya Thomas)

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Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

To mark 24 months since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going. 

Sonya Thomas is executive director of Nashville PROPEL, or Parents Requiring Our Public Education System to Lead. The nonprofit runs a six-week fellowship program, training parents to advocate for their children’s education and for system-wide improvements in the Metro Nashville Public Schools. In a February interview, Thomas described families still grieving from “unimaginable loss,” how the pandemic opened parents’ eyes to their children’s low achievement, and the critical difference between parent engagement and partnership. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Looking back on the past two years, what do you think has changed for families in Nashville?

Sonya Thomas: Nothing has changed. You would think that a pandemic would bring about a sense of urgency. We’re talking about decades of educational inequities, and what I’m seeing is that the system itself is not changing. It has actually grown richer in money. It has grown more savvy in messaging. And it’s hurtful. I’ve got tears coming down my face now. I just had a friend who died this weekend. He couldn’t read, and I have to ask myself, “What has changed?” 

Have parents lost trust in the public schools? 

I’ve seen an uptick in homeschooling, but I’m starting to see a trend where they can’t sustain it, so they put [their children] right back in the schools. I’ve seen an uptick of parents who want school choice and they’re looking for the [right] fit for their child because they feel stuck.

I get a lot of questions. I do hear a lot of mistrust. In Tennessee there’s a voucher bill, but nobody is talking about outcomes. People are just talking about giving you more choices, but not outcomes. It saddens me, grieves me. As I learn about the landscape of education, I feel a sense of helplessness, like we’re right back to square one. 

We are no longer reading or hearing about the lives impacted by COVID. Our families, mostly Black and low-income, are dealing with unimaginable loss. We see families that have lost numerous family members. Children who have lost their sole caregiver. Parents who are living with long COVID, which impacts care of children. Grandparents and older family members who are medically fragile and send their children to school in hopes that they don’t bring COVID home. 

COVID has wreaked an additional layer of havoc on our communities and Tennessee has tied local school districts’ hands when it comes to offering families relief. Not surprisingly, Black parents and grandparents who have the opportunity are opting to keep their children home and homeschooling them.

Talk about how your organization has changed through the past two years. What were you doing before the pandemic? 

The work we were doing before the pandemic was on the ground, door-to-door, meeting for coffee, talking to parents in school buildings, in the grocery stores, in the beauty shop — you name it, we did all of those things. Then the pandemic hit, and we had to quickly pivot to a virtual setting. Last year, we met with 1,000 parents — more than the previous year. 

These meetings were about how to help children in school, how to navigate the system? 

It’s not an agenda-driven movement. What do parents care the most about? I always coach my team to ask what keeps the parent awake at night. Is it really school lunch? You have to dig deep. You have to listen attentively and intentionally to the parents because a lot of them feel really upset when they’re talking to us. You have to move them from hot anger to the true issue. We ask, “What would you like to be true? What is the solution?”

Let’s think about that, and let’s think about that on a system-wide basis. You’re not the only parent having that problem. Are your friends and family having the same conversation? When they start connecting with other parents, they understand they’re not alone. If you just attack it from individual to individual, school building to school building, you never get anything accomplished. You never reach a solution.

We’re not really building advocacy. Parents are already advocating for their children. They’re already asking questions. But we’re finding that the system is so programmed. Go to an IEP [Individualized education program] meeting and there are six [staff members] and one of you. It’s like that across the country. We’ve been meeting with parents, listening to them, building their knowledge of how the system works. When you go into a meeting with six administrators, you know your rights, you understand what’s going on, you can ask those questions you need to ask and know when to push back.

Before the pandemic, a lot of the families didn’t realize their kids were so off track.

But during the pandemic they started to see it for themselves? 

Yes. It wasn’t just going to school, bringing the [empty] backpack home and [the parent] asking, “You don’t have any homework?” I mean, when I asked my kids, the first thing they said was “No.” 

Now, they can see if their child wasn’t paying attention in a class or didn’t have the answers? 

It’s “Why do you not know this?” You start to ask yourself, “Why doesn’t little Ryan not know how to add or do long division?” The report card is coming home and it’s got a B on it, so I’m thinking they know how to do it. Now, [parents] are noticing the deficits. Then they notice who didn’t have access to the internet. Kids went to school and didn’t have a laptop, and when they came home, they didn’t have a laptop, and then it was, “You don’t even have a book either? You had no laptop, you had no book — what were you doing at school for the last four years? How are you supposed to do this work at home without any of that? I can’t teach you because I had a 1.7 GPA. I don’t know how, because that’s not my expertise.”

That’s when the homeschool movement began and a push for improving virtual learning. I sat in on some of those virtual learnings and there was a struggle on both ends. It was a struggle for educators, and it was a struggle for the students.

We also saw the inability of the system to use the resources, like ESSER [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds. Nashville has tried to roll out tutoring, but we’re looking at the inability to take something like high-dosage tutoring and implement it to drive outcomes. School systems are struggling with that across the country. 

Does the anger you hear from parents extend beyond the district, to government in general?

Politics in education is something that has really gotten in the way. It’s about PR campaigns. It’s about getting reelected, just taking a message and not necessarily making sure that message aligns with the safety and welfare of your citizens. I think poor judgment has caused a lot of the discourse. It is decreasing the trust in our leaders. Parents like me are concerned about our children having the academic achievement they need. The mask conversations — we were oblivious to it. What are y’all talking about? These kids can’t even read. I would have liked to see more reporting on that. Here we are, 2022, and nothing has changed. Children still can’t read. They’re still not doing well in math. They’re still not taking AP courses. All of those things are not being addressed, and I just wonder what the next excuse is going to be.

Talk a little about that reopening process after the holidays. Were there debates over keeping schools open or closed? 

I think every parent in this city, this state, this country wanted their kids back in buildings. There was just a lot of uncertainty around schools’ ability to keep children safe. The lack of clarity about what was safe was something that we could have avoided. It didn’t make sense to me to be so separated on the issue. I think schools are getting better at figuring out how to keep children in the classroom, but we have parents who have had children quarantined for 40 days. 

A lot of schools have gotten lax in their safety protocols, almost like COVID fatigue. I’ve seen a few schools do campaigns around getting the vaccine, but it’s hard to gauge the impact. It would be nice to follow that [vaccine] data to see if that is helping us get to a place where we’re going to be maskless. You have to have a bulls-eye. I don’t see that. 

Then you might be able to get more students vaccinated? 

Yes, and I think if people who are anti-mask had that type of leadership, we wouldn’t have the discourse, because there [would be] an endgame.

When we meet with parents, to be honest with you, there’s not a whole bunch of COVID talk. It’s, “My child is reading on the second grade level,” or “My child is being bullied in school” or “The school isn’t following the IEP program.” Those are the conversations that the parents we serve are having. The mask thing — those things are being talked about in the media. I have a son here and he has worn a mask ever since they went back to school, and he has not complained. What he complains about is, “I don’t have a computer science teacher.” In my house, the expectation is that you go to school to learn. You give it your all, and you bring some good outcomes home.

What do you think school districts have learned about organizations like yours or about working with parents in general?

Parent engagement is not what we want. When you engage us, what you’re doing is bringing your own agenda and you’re saying, “This is what we’re going to do, so get with the program.” That’s what engagement means, right? “I’m bringing something to you, this is what you’re going to get and you got to just walk in line with it.” I think what they’re learning is that we’re not going anywhere and we want parent partnership. We don’t want to be engaged. Throw that in the trash. That has never gotten anything for our children. What we want is true partnership. We want school districts to partner with us, intentionally take our feedback and use it. That builds trust. It’s not a talking point or a PR move. 

Disclosure: The City Fund provides financial support to Nashville PROPEL and The 74.

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