Updated: In a significant shift from previous comments, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said on Aug. 8 that she personally supports her members working with school districts to create vaccine mandates.
Despite arguing in the spring that teachers should be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, state and national teachers’ unions have so far been reluctant to support a mandate. But that might soon change, according to new comments from the powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers.
Teachers’ unions, which received blowback last year for taking a conservative approach to schools reopening, are now advocating for five days a week of in-person instruction this fall. They’ve encouraged teachers to get vaccinated but have so far stopped short of supporting a mandate, even though vaccinations are widely considered the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, the AFT and the National Education Association have said teachers should get vaccinated or get tested regularly, and that any mandate should be negotiated on a local level.
But on Thursday, AFT President Randi Weingarten shifted gears and told news outlets that she would consider supporting vaccine mandates to keep schools open and students and staff safe.
“Things have changed with Delta raging, and with the proximity of the full approval of the vaccines,” she told the New York Times. “Because of those two facts, we are considering all alternatives, including looking at vaccine mandates.”
Weingarten’s growing openness to the possibility of a mandate comes as some onlookers have raised the question: If teachers’ unions really do want all kids back in school this year, why aren’t they using every last tool to make it happen?
The vast majority of teachers are already vaccinated—outpacing the vaccination rates of the general public. Still, 11 percent of teachers said they do not intend to get vaccinated, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey that was conducted in late July and early August. Many school districts are trying to encourage the holdouts to get vaccinated through financial incentives, including $1,000 cash payments.
But as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus races through communities—even, in rare cases, causing breakthrough infections among the vaccinated—more and more employers are considering vaccine mandates. The White House is considering vaccine mandates for federal employees, and some of the country’s major employers, from Tyson’s Foods to Walmart, are starting to require the shot for at least some of their workers.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said all educators in the city will have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30. Success Academy, which operates 47 charter schools in New York City, has required its school staff (who are not unionized) to get vaccinated. And some traditional public school districts are considering a mandate, too.
This has put state and national teachers’ unions in a tough spot. Experts predict that schools will struggle to remain open this year given the surge in cases, especially since few students are vaccinated.
But vaccine mandates will likely be part of local collective bargaining—and state and national teachers’ unions don’t want to weaken their locals’ stances, said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“It’s a bargaining chip for them as they negotiate the return to school,” he said. “Even though [national unions] support the vaccine, if they come out in favor of a mandate, ... it takes the bargaining chip off the table. ... Locals can negotiate this and may concede on accepting a mandate, but they’ll get other concessions at the table.”
Still, Marianno said, “It’s a tradeoff: They retain the power of their locals while at the same time losing the public perception battle.”
National union leaders had hoped teachers would willingly get the shot
The AFT and the NEA have poured resources into getting teachers—and eligible students—vaccinated. Much of their efforts have focused around vaccine education, especially in communities of color, and making it accessible for teachers to get the shot through vaccine clinics.
Union leaders say they are proud that surveys show that nearly 90 percent of teachers are fully vaccinated or will be soon, and that they will keep promoting the safety and efficacy of the shot. But they’ve so far been wary of a blanket requirement that doesn’t take into account individual circumstances.
“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, who represents 1.7 million members, told Education Week on Monday.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday, however, Weingarten said she had hoped to persuade the vaccine holdouts to willingly take the shot. But now, she said, “we’re considering all options.”
The 3-million-member NEA has not yet gone that far. President Becky Pringle said in a statement on Thursday, “Everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated and if they can’t, they should be tested on a regular basis.”
“But there are often complex medical issues at play, and we don’t presume to understand them all,” Pringle continued. “That’s why we’ve also encouraged districts to collaborate and bargain with their teachers and their unions so that our educators and our students can be safe and appropriate accommodations made.”
Teachers’ unions want a say
When the Denver mayor announced the vaccination requirement for educators this week, it came as an “absolute surprise” to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, president Rob Gould said.
“As we have the expectation for the district to collaborate with educators in the decision-making process, we have a mutual expectation that governmental officials collaborate with school districts before imposing mandates on their employees and community members,” he said in an email statement to Chalkbeat Colorado.
Yet as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, more government officials may support vaccine mandates for teachers. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo floated the possibility of “mandatory vaccinations for teachers, if the numbers go up,” during a press conference this week. In the meantime, he said, districts in areas with high positivity rates should tell their teachers to get vaccinated or get tested.
Giving teachers the choice between getting tested regularly and getting vaccinated has become a popular middle ground in a growing number of districts, including the nation’s largest, New York City. Unvaccinated teachers there must be tested once a week.
Some districts, including the San Jose Unified district in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Upper Merion Area school district in the Philadelphia area, have upped the testing requirement for unvaccinated teachers to twice a week.
Still, there’s widespread agreement in the medical field that testing is not as foolproof a mitigation measure as vaccinations. And individual teachers say they’d feel more comfortable at school if every eligible person were vaccinated.
Even so, national union leaders have said that schools will be able to stay open for in-person instruction with the right mitigation measures in place, such as universal masking, good ventilation, and social distancing.
“We know [kids] need to be in school, and we know everybody needs to be healthy and safe,” Weingarten told Education Week. “If we get mitigations right, we’re going to stay in school.”