The head of the country’s second-largest teachers’ union has called for a return to in-person learning for all five days a week in the fall, and has pledged $5 million to help convince parents to send their children back to the classroom.
“We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning, and support,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in an hour-long virtual speech Thursday. “And keep them open—fully and safely five days a week.”
As of March, about half of the nation’s public schools with a 4th or 8th grade class were not yet offering in-person instruction five days a week, according to the latest federal data. Twelve percent of schools offered only remote classes. There are still big questions about what learning will look like in most school districts this fall, although at least a half-dozen states plan to require full-time in-person instruction.
In many places, teachers’ unions have played a powerful role in negotiating school building closures and reopenings. Teachers have been reluctant to return to the classroom before they feel it’s safe, and their unions have pushed for strong—and sometimes costly—mitigation measures, even after teachers began getting vaccinated. Some critics have accused unions of being too conservative since research has shown that COVID-19 transmission rates in schools have been relatively low.
Even now, Weingarten said reopening schools “is not risk free,” but that vaccines have been a game-changer.
Teachers became eligible for vaccines through the Federal Pharmacy Retail Program in March, and all state-run sites were vaccinating educators by April 5. Eighty-three percent of educators are fully vaccinated or will be soon, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center Survey that was conducted in late April. The oldest high school students have also been able to get vaccinated for more than a month now, and federal agencies just approved the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 12.
“I hear it in educators’ voices and see it in our polling results: The fear that they will bring the virus home decreases the moment educators get their shot,” Weingarten said. “But the fear isn’t gone.”
Weingarten calls for safety measures in school
Some school staff who are high-risk or live with someone who is may still need accommodations, Weingarten said. And some parents—particularly those in communities of color—are still hesitant to send their children back to school in the fall.
But when the union asked parents about resuming in-person instruction with safeguards in place, their comfort levels increased, Weingarten said. She called for several mitigation measures, including COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, improvements to ventilation, universal masking, and keeping students 3 feet apart. (Local unions could adopt these proposals into their own bargaining efforts.)
Even so, some of these mitigation measures—particularly requiring students to wear masks—are politically unpopular. Several states have rolled back their masking requirements, leaving the decision up to superintendents and school boards. And in South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed an executive order saying that parents have the right to opt their child out of school mask requirements.
Maintaining social distance among students—initially 6 feet before the federal government eased its guidance this spring—has been a major challenge for crowded schools this year. Weingarten proposed that school districts spend the summer finding additional space for classrooms, and then reduce class sizes for the whole year.
Smaller class sizes will “integrate the best practices for both health and learning,” she said. She argued that smaller class sizes can boost student achievement—a particularly important goal next year since the pandemic has set back learning for students, especially students of color.
Smaller class sizes would likely require hiring new teachers—which could be a bonus for teachers’ unions looking to bolster their membership rolls. Weingarten suggested that districts use some of their federal coronavirus relief money to hire more teachers, school counselors, and nurses.
While some experts have warned that hiring school staff with one-time money could lead to layoffs down the road, Weingarten called that argument “really painful,” saying the federal money should be a “down payment to give our kids what they need” by bringing more educators into the profession.
Teachers will try to convince parents to send their kids back
To help bring students back into the classroom, AFT is devoting $5 million for its members to go door-to-door and host open houses to tell parents about the safety protocols in place in schools. Weingarten also called for districts to put together committees of staff, parents, and students to walk through schools over the summer and address any safety concerns.
Still, the demand for remote learning is likely to remain strong. In a national poll of 1,150 parents in April, 58 percent said schools should offer both remote and in-person options next year and let parents choose. Some experts have urged districts to focus on improving their remote learning offerings, especially since it’s likely that a disproportionate number of students of color will opt into them.
But “prolonged isolation is harmful” for kids, Weingarten said. And parents—particularly mothers—may be unable to go to work when schools aren’t open, she added.
“We are all yearning to move forward after this difficult year,” she said. “For our young people, that means being back in school, with their peers and caring adults, with all the supports they need.”