Teachers' Union President: Fully Reopen Schools for Fall

Carolyn Crist

May 18, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called for a full reopening of schools in the fall, according to The New York Times .

About half of public schools in the U.S. are now open with five days of in-person classes, while the other half have a mix of hybrid or non-traditional learning arrangements.

"There is no doubt: Schools must be open. In person. Five days a week. With the space and facilities to do so," Weingarten said during a live-broadcast speech on Thursday.

"We know that's how kids learn best and that prolonged isolation is harmful," she said.

Parents, teachers, school administrators, and public health officials have debated the merits and drawbacks of fully reopening in the fall. Teachers' unions have called for vaccination and COVID-19 mitigation measures to protect teachers, staff, and students. The American Federation of Teachers, which is the country's second-largest teachers' union, has 1.7 million members.

"The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school," Weingarten said Thursday. "And my union is all in."

Weingarten also pledged $5 million for a "Back-to-School for Everyone" campaign to connect with teachers, staff, and families, and build their confidence in returning to school. She acknowledged that fully reopening is "not risk-free" but said health risks could be managed with several practices that were enacted during the past year, such as face masks and frequent handwashing. Schools could also decrease class sizes to follow the CDC's 3-feet distancing guidelines, use other spaces to accommodate cramped classrooms, and form school-based committees to plan for and respond to safety issues.

At the local level, however, school districts are debating other policies, such as 2-hour school days to prevent students from needing to remove their masks to eat lunch, the newspaper reported. Administrators are also looking at facility renovations during the summer, which could include costly ventilation upgrades or more fans to promote air flow.

Local teachers' unions could have other concerns, too, the newspaper reported. The American Federation of Teachers has 3,000 local affiliates, for instance, and union officials in Chicago and Los Angeles have disagreed with some of Weingarten's proposals during the past year. After Weingarten's speech, the local unions in Philadelphia and San Francisco supported her goal of fully reopening in the fall, though details will need to be negotiated.

"There's no evidence to suggest that what is said from on high has a direct influence on local negotiation," Joshua P. Starr, president of PDK International, a professional organization for educators, told the newspaper.

Some mitigation measures will need to continue during the next school year, Weingarten added. Public health officials and schools will need to decide questions about vaccinating kids, as well as watch developments around contagious coronavirus variants and booster shots for adults.

"But these questions can't stop us from reopening fully," she said.


The New York Times: "President of Key Teachers' Union Shares Plea: 'Schools Must Be Open' in Fall."

American Federation of Teachers: "In Major Speech, Randi Weingarten Reimagines Public Education as Nation Emerges from COVID Crisis."