Teaching Profession

Nation’s Largest Teachers’ Union Now Supports Vaccine Mandates for Educators

By Sarah Schwartz — August 12, 2021 3 min read
National Education Association President Becky Pringle delivers a keynote address.
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The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, announced Thursday that it supports mandates requiring that all educators either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular testing for the virus.

“As we enter a new school year amidst a rapidly spreading Delta variant and lagging public vaccination rates, it is clear that the vaccination of those eligible is one of the most effective ways to keep schools safe, and ... must be coupled with other proven mitigation strategies,” said Becky Pringle, the NEA’s president, in a statement on Thursday.

“Appropriate employee accommodations must be provided, and paid leave and readily available sites should be available for vaccinations. Employee input, including collective bargaining where applicable, is critical,” she said.

In self-reports, 90 percent of NEA members said that they’re fully vaccinated. The union has about 3 million members.

By contrast, the American Federation of Teachers stopped just short of endorsing a vaccine mandate in a resolution passed Wednesday night by the union’s executive council.

The resolution reiterates AFT’s support for voluntary vaccination, and encourages union representatives to bargain with employers over workplace vaccinate-or-test policies.

“We should be working with employers on vaccine policies, not opposing them,” said Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, in an interview with Education Week. “If [school districts] want a mandate, we should be working with them and bargaining on the impacts to make sure it’s fair.”

This AFT executive council announcement comes several days after Weingarten said she personally supported AFT members working with districts to create vaccine mandates.

Spread of Delta variant pushes unions, districts to reconsider vaccine mandates

As Education Week’s Madeline Will has reported, teachers unions initially shied away from supporting vaccine mandates, on the grounds of teacher autonomy, while promoting voluntary vaccination. (“As strongly as I support vaccines, you have to have some voice and agency in determining whether you get the shot in the arm,” Weingarten said earlier this month.)

But the rapid spread of the Delta variant has shifted these calculations—for unions, but also for states and school districts. The surge has called into question schools’ ability to safely provide in-person instruction this year, especially as children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

Earlier this week, California became the first state to mandate that all teachers and school staff either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. The order goes into effect Oct. 15 and applies to both public and private school teachers.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, has mandated the same policy, though it only applies to state and county workers—which include public school, but not private school, teachers. New York City and Denver have also put in place similar requirements.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief epidemiologist, also recently came out in favor of vaccine mandates for teachers, saying the country was now in a “critical situation.”

“We’ve had 615,000-plus deaths, and we are in a major surge now as we are going into the fall, into the school season. This is very serious business,” he said, earlier this week.

At the same time, some states where governors or legislatures had previously banned local mask mandates in school districts are seeing renewed pressure from parents to reinstate these policies.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, called a special session to revise or repeal a law he signed earlier this year, which banned schools from requiring masks for students or staff.

The special session adjourned without further action, but last week, a judge blocked the law—a decision that the governor said he supports. Several days later, the state’s department of education officially recommended that students wear masks in school buildings this fall.

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