The presidents of the nation's two major teachers unions called separately for a full return to in-person learning in the fall, with the leader of the American Federation of Teachers declaring Thursday that her organization was “all-in.”
In an address on social media, Randi Weingarten said the wide availability of vaccines and a new infusion of federal education money have removed many obstacles that prevented schools from opening.
“Conditions have changed,” Weingarten said. “We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning and support. And keep them open. Fully and safely, five days a week.”
The National Education Association issued its own statement after Weingarten’s remarks.
“NEA supports school buildings being open to students for in-person instruction in the fall,” said the group's president, Becky Pringle. “Educators will continue to lead in making sure each school has what it needs to fully reopen in a safe and just way, and to ensure the resources exist to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of all students.”
If local unions heed theses calls, it would be seen as a major stride in the effort to reopen schools. Teachers unions have been blamed for slowing the process with demands for a variety of safety measures. Teachers in some districts have refused to return until ventilations systems are updated, virus tests are given and all teachers are vaccinated.
Weingarten said vaccines have been the decisive factor in her vision for a fall reopening. President Joe Biden in March ordered states to prioritize teachers in vaccination rollouts, and by the end of that month, federal health officials said 80% of school workers had been given their first shot.
“I hear it in educators’ voices and see it in our polling results,” the union chief said. “The fear that they will bring the virus home decreases the moment educators get the shots.”
Surveys by the union find that 89% of its 1.7 million members have been fully vaccinated or want to be, she said.
Still, Weingarten isn’t suggesting a quick return to the type of schooling students knew before the pandemic. She said schools should continue with mask requirements, social distancing, contact tracing and other measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s not risk free,” Weingarten said. “But we can manage the threat by encouraging people to get vaccines and following guidance from the CDC.”
The union will continue to push for 3 feet of space between students in classrooms, which the CDC recommended in March after reducing it from 6 feet. Weingarten said schools should work over the summer to “find adequate space” to maintain smaller classes throughout the school year.
Her address came after a unanimous vote from the union's executive council approving her message for the fall.
A $1.9 trillion aid package that Biden signed in March included $123 billion to help schools reopen and recover from the pandemic. Weingarten, who endorsed Biden, wrote that his administration has been “fighting the pandemic with science, truth, transparency and, yes, money.”
“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” she said.
The CDC has been saying since February that schools can safely reopen with certain safety measures, but many of the nation’s largest districts have remained mostly or entirely online. The latest federal data found that, in March, 54% of public elementary and middle schools were offering five days a week of in-person instruction to all students.
Even in districts that have reopened, many students have opted to stay at home, including a disproportionate share of nonwhite students. Weingarten is suggesting that schools create committees of parents and teachers to tackle safety issues. That, along with continued safety measures, would help rebuild trust with families, she said.
The union is also coming out with a $5 million campaign to push for a fall reopening. The group said it will reach out to teachers, families and communities to highlight the value of getting all students back in the classroom. A local union in Pittsburgh plans to go door to door talking about safety measures in place in schools. Other local groups are helping operate vaccination clinics for students and families.
“When I tell you we’re all in,” Weingarten says, “we’re all in.”