‘We’re all in’: Second-largest teachers union calls for reopening all schools in the fall

A call Thursday by the country's second-largest teachers union to fully reopen schools in the fall could lift a key barrier to a return to a traditional school schedule, given the concerns over safety raised by many union members, like these who marched through Brooklyn last September. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

The head of the nation’s second-largest teachers union Thursday called for fully reopening K-12 schools this fall, adding that efforts to convince some families to come back to class may require the zeal of a political campaign.

The announcement from Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, signals a shift after local unions in some communities put up fierce resistance to reopening while pushing for better safeguards for teachers. 

“Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open,” Weingarten said. “We’re all in.”

The National Education Association, the country’s largest national teachers union, issued a statement Thursday saying it supports school buildings being open to students for in-person instruction in the fall.

A minority of schools — about 12% — were operating remote-only instruction as of March, according to government data. But many families, particularly those of color, have continued with virtual learning even after schools have reopened for in-person learning. 

Among the majority of schools considered reopened, about 1 in 3 were allowing students to attend only a few days a week on a hybrid schedule, the data shows.

Weingarten praised COVID-19 vaccines for helping to get educators safely back to class, but she called for upholding 3 feet of distance between people in schools, a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will be difficult to implement if every child returns to class this fall.

She said other tactics to mitigate spreading the virus need to include wearing masks, washing hands, providing good ventilation, and testing and contract tracing for COVID-19 in schools.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers called Thursday for fully reopening all K-12 schools this fall. "Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open," she said. (Photo: StreamYard screen capture)

As for teaching and learning itself, Weingarten called for schools to end the “disastrous” practice of teachers simultaneously trying to engage students in person while virtual learners beam in from home.

Union influence on reopening schools

The two big national teachers unions have faced criticism over their perceived influence in the CDC’s school reopening guidelines under President Joe Biden, whose campaign was supported by unions.

The New York Post reported email exchanges between union leaders and CDC officials, saying that some of the union’s recommendations were transferred verbatim to the published guidance.

Weingarten has said lobbying for members’ safety is routine and appropriate, but Republicans in Congress have asked for more information involving the role of the unions in the development of the CDC guidance.

In general, the CDC gave schools the green light to reopen, with mitigation measures in place, in areas where there is low to moderate community spread of the virus.

Yet many teachers around the country opposed returning to buildings, often saying that they didn’t trust their schools’ reopening plans would keep them safe. Some unions were strong enough to hold out for widespread staff vaccinations. In many states where unions are weaker, particularly in the south, schools reopened for full-time instruction much faster and long before vaccines were available.

The drumbeat of children returning to school for their mental, physical and academic well-being has grown for months, and districts are frantically designing ways to put approximately $123 billion in federal education relief money to work to help students recovery academically.

Weingarten said teachers would reach out to families about the value of students going back in person. Her union is committing $5 million to a “get out the vote”-style campaign in which teachers would hold open houses and go knocking on doors.

Groups that advocate for Black parents suggested speeches and promises may not be enough to convince minority parents to send their children back to school, even with vaccines becoming more widespread. "We’ve maintained that Black people have had no reason to trust the district to protect their children," one advocate said. (Photo: David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

Mixed reactions from parents

Laura Zorc, a parent and the director of education reform for FreedomWorks, a conservative, Washington D.C.-based group that advocates for limited government, said Weingarten’s call to reopen is “too little, too late.”

And groups that advocate for Black parents suggested speeches and promises may not be enough to convince parents to send their children back to school, even with vaccines becoming more widespread.

“We’ve maintained that Black people have had no reason to trust the district to protect their children,” said Sonya Thomas, the executive director of Nashville PROPEL, a parent group.

In Oakland, California, where schools began opening in late March, only about one-third of teachers initially agreed to come back to teach in-person. The state has some of the lowest rates of fully open schools nationwide. 

Even if schools were open, many Black Oakland parents say they would prefer to continue having their children learn remotely.

“I’m concerned about pushing kids back into schools when their parents don’t want them to go, without a real plan about how we’re going to do business better,” said Lakisha Young, CEO of the Oakland REACH, which advocates for parents and has also been providing support for virtual education.

Parents of color shouldn’t be forced to send their children back to school if online learning is working for them, she added.

“Let’s be more innovative around hearing the voices of families and what they like to do,” Young said.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

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