Teaching Profession

Strikes Are an Option to Force Schools to Reopen Safely, AFT President Says

By Madeline Will — July 28, 2020 3 min read
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The executive council of the American Federation of Teachers has voted to pursue various tactics—including strikes—to keep schools from reopening for in-person instruction without proper safety measures.

“If authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a Tuesday speech during the national teachers’ union’s biennial convention.

Delegates from the 1.7 million-member union were supposed to meet in Houston this month for its biennial convention, but the conference was made virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the union business, including voting on resolutions, is closed to the press. But speeches are being livestreamed, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s address to delegates on Thursday. (He also addressed delegates at the convention of the National Education Association, the other national teachers’ union, earlier this month.)

In her speech, Weingarten slammed President Donald Trump for his response to the coronavirus pandemic and his calls for schools to reopen for in-person instruction this fall. Trump has since said that districts in areas heavily affected by the coronavirus may have to delay reopening school buildings.

“We know that kids need in-person learning and that remote instruction is no substitute for it, but it has to be safe,” Weingarten said, adding that there can be no one-size-fits-all plan for reopening since transmission rates vary widely across the country.

The resolution passed by the 45-member council says that school buildings can only open in places where the average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent, and where there is effective contact tracing.

Safeguards also need to be put in place, the AFT says, for educators who are at high-risk for serious health problems or death due to COVID-19. The union says they should have access to accommodations and that safety measures like face covering requirements and social distancing are in place. And Congress needs to send additional funds to schools to pay for these measures, the union says.

“Parents, students, school staff, and their unions have to be involved, not sidelined,” Weingarten said.

In many places across the country, including Arizona and Florida, teachers have been organizing protests against plans to resume in-person instruction. Some educators, emboldened by the wave of teacher activism in the past couple years, have called for strikes.

See also: Teachers Are Scared to Go Back to School. Will They Strike?

The AFT, along with the NEA, has also helped the Florida Education Association sue Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials over their directive for school districts to offer full-time, face-to-face instruction to all families who want it.

Meanwhile, 10 of the 15 largest school districts in the country have opted to start the school year fully remote, according to Education Week’s tracker.

Concerns About School Police

In Weingarten’s keynote speech, she also spoke about the national reckoning on race that is taking place after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black people.

“Racial bias is not only evident in one man’s knee on another man’s neck,” she said. “It is built into virtually every system in the United States,” including schools.

The AFT has called for school districts to separate school security from police departments. Now, the union will “convene a nationwide conversation on how to transform school security,” Weingarten said, as well as implement anti-racist training in all of the union’s leadership developments.

Delegates from the Detroit Federation of Teachers have submitted a resolution to be voted on this week that would recommend schools “investigate the practicality” of having school security or police officers wear body cameras, and to require “regular and continuous cultural sensitivity, emotional intelligence, mental illness, and de-escalation and unconscious bias training” for officers who work in schools.

Historically, the relationship between school police and teachers’ unions hasn’t been neat and tidy.

Also, AFT delegates this week will vote whether to endorse Biden in the general election. The AFT, along with the NEA, endorsed Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, despite frustration from some members.

Photo of Weingarten —Cliff Owen for the Associated Press

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.