Public school leaders and elected officials must listen to the opinions of students and educators on how to tackle crises emerging from the pandemic, including how to recruit future teachers, panelists said Tuesday at the 2022 San Antonio Regional Education Forum.

Panelists discussed “The Post-Pandemic Challenges Facing Bexar County Public School Leaders” at the San Antonio Report’s 7th annual forum at the Witte Museum. Communities In Schools CEO Rey Saldaña delivered a keynote address at the luncheon, following the presentation of the 2022 Education Champion Award to Shari Albright, president of the Charles Butt Foundation.

Report co-founder Robert Rivard moderated the luncheon discussion between Marisa B. Pérez-Díaz, State Board of Education District 3 representative; Ericka Olivarez, CAST Teach High School principal; Jordana Barton-García of Barton-García Advisors; and Inga Cotton, founder and executive director of San Antonio Charter Moms.

One of the greatest challenges public school leaders face is recruiting the next generation of teachers, while school districts struggle to adequately staff classrooms, Olivarez said. But the CAST Teach school has 115 eighth grade students who are interested in pursuing careers in education and will take classes there once the school opens in the fall.

Olivarez said school leaders need to listen to students and educators to find solutions to pandemic-related issues.

“We need to really put our listening ears on and listen to what teachers and students are saying about school systems. We need to listen and then act,” she said. “We need to stop thinking we have the solution but really hear from our educators, and yes, that takes time. That’s an investment, but we need to spend that time hearing what they have to say about how we need to change and reinvent schooling.”

Some of those issues include the national and state political narratives that have trickled into classrooms and boardrooms, usually around mask mandates and teaching about race and sexuality, Pérez-Díaz said. She said these narratives are politically driven by elected officials who want to stay in office.

“They’re willing to say anything, and in the process, we’re dismantling what public education has the potential to do,” she said. “If more educators in this state and in this country would become politically engaged, we would look completely different.”

Olivarez agreed, saying that staff and students shouldn’t shy away from those political conversations but engage in them. She wants students to see the political side of education careers and show them what it’s like to work in the state Capitol and at the Texas Education Agency.

“We can carve out time for our students and our teachers to learn about how the political system works, to learn about the history of education in our nation, in San Antonio, to learn about how we’ve gotten to where we’re at,” she said. “They can help us transform it. They’re going to be the voices that we need to listen to, and so we need to teach them that agency.”

But oftentimes, getting educators’ opinions is an “afterthought” for political leaders, Pérez-Díaz said. She pointed to the TEA’s recently formed Teacher Vacancy Task Force. Of the 28 members on the committee, just two are teachers, although the agency later announced it would create an additional panel of teachers.

“The classroom educators for which the policies are directly impacting are frequently a second thought,” she said to applause. “That cannot happen anymore. They have to be part of the conversation from the very beginning.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.