American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told members Tuesday that the union’s leadership would support potential teacher “safety strikes” amid calls to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The union’s executive council approved a resolution last week backing such action as a last resort and on a case-by-case basis, Weingarten revealed in a speech during the union’s annual convention, held online this year.
“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,” Weingarten said.
The AFT represents around 1.7 million members, including mostly teachers and school employees, but also nurses and other health care professionals. In June, 76% of polled members said they were comfortable returning to school given adequate safeguards. But a month later, after President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pressured schools to reopen at all costs, even without assurances of federal funds to help implement COVID-19 safeguards, teachers are “afraid and angry,” said Weingarten. At the same time, the virus has continued to surge in multiple states.
“These funds should have been distributed to communities months ago. How dare [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell stonewall and stall this aid? And how dare Trump tweet, in all caps, ‘SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!’ With no plan. No funding. And, frankly, no idea what he is talking about,” Weingarten said, noting that advocacy, protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits are also on the table to oppose schools that reopen without prioritizing the safety of workers.
The resolution approved by the union’s executive council contends that school buildings should only reopen in places where tracing mechanisms are in place; where high-risk staff are given special accommodations; where local authorities are able to close schools if the virus spikes; and in buildings with proper ventilation systems, mask-wearing protocols and where 6-feet social distancing is possible. Additionally, buildings should only reopen in places where “the average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5% and the transmission rate is below 1%,” the resolution says.
Absent these requirements, the resolution says, the union will use every tool available to push back on school reopenings.
Indeed, just last week, Florida’s teachers union, the Florida Education Association, sued the governor of Florida, with the support of the AFT. The lawsuit opposes a Florida executive order commanding all schools to open five days a week, even as cases there continue to ravage communities. The lawsuit alleges that the order violated Florida’s state constitution, which mandates a “safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”
Meanwhile, leading Republicans continue to try to force school reopenings. The latest version of a new coronavirus stimulus bill from Senate Republicans ties federal funding for schools to in-person school instruction. Two-thirds of the $70 billion allocated to schools in the bill would only be available to these institutions.
A report from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine previously said that schools should push to reopen, especially for students with disabilities and younger children, though they need an injection of federal funds to do so safely, and that local health should be top of mind. Polls, though, show that many Americans are wary of the push to reopen schools. Just 19% of Americans in a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll said they think schools should fully reopen in the fall.
Many big-city districts, like Los Angeles, have already announced plans to begin the fall semester online. New York City, the largest school district in the country, plans to offer in-person instruction at least one day a week for students.
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