The president of the nation’s most powerful teacher’s union claimed Thursday that her union has been “trying to reopen schools” so children can resume in-person classes since April of 2020, when pandemic lockdowns were in full force.
“Sorry, you know I get very angry about this. My union has been trying to reopen schools since last April,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told CNN host Chris Cuomo during an appearance on his primetime show Thursday evening.
“We know how important in-school learning is!” Weingarten added.
She went on to blame former President Trump for teachers’ reluctance to return to in-person classes, claiming Trump did not give teachers the data, guidance, and resources they needed.
“I begged for it for months and months and months,” Weingarten said, adding that it is “a complete lie” that teachers are being unreasonable in their requests.
Later in the interview, Weingarten emphasized “the joy” of in-person learning, recalling a visit she made to a reopened school along with First Lady Jill Biden.
“The joy in that school, the joy in the kindergarteners’ faces, the joy in seeing the First Lady walk the halls talking to all the teachers,” she said. “They have the safeguards. People are back in school. There is a sense of resiliency and joy there.”
On Tuesday, President Biden announced a plan to prioritize teachers getting the coronavirus vaccine, proposing a goal to give teachers at least one dose of a vaccine this month. Critics accused the president of capitulating to teachers unions, arguing that pharmacies would have to deny at-risk people such as the elderly in order to provide vaccinations for young and healthy teachers.
Weingarten said Thursday that the move to prioritize teachers was “huge” but cautioned that more safety measures are still needed in schools.
Her cautious response has become a familiar one. As much as the Biden administration, city governments, and parents of students have attempted to assuage the COVID-19 fears of teachers unions, the response has been largely the same for nearly a year: the measures put in place are not enough.
The AFT, the second largest teachers union in the country with 1.7 million members, began advocating for the closure of schools as soon as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, demanding that school districts meet safety demands that critics say are unreasonable before teachers consider returning to the classroom.
Back in April, Weingarten accused the Trump administration of believing that “government is not necessary,” stating that is why the administration was unable to put together guidance for public schools.
Because of the Trump administration’s “lack of preparation,” “the only way to mitigate right now is basically to close down the economy,” Weingarten said on April 1 of last year on the WBAI radio show “Talk out of School.”
“Thank goodness we have a Democratic House of Representatives,” she said.
In May, Weingarten’s stance was that schools need cash, saying that until they know what the next federal aid package is going to be for states, schools, and localities, “a lot of people are really immobilized.” She hailed the massive $3 trillion HEROES Act stimulus package that the House passed in May, but that died in the Senate. As of January, about $9 billion of the $13.2 billion in school aid provided by the CARES Act, passed in March of last year, remained unused.
As the fall semester drew closer, Weingarten criticized the Trump administration’s school reopening guidelines, describing them as “too little, too late” and reiterated that schools need more emergency aid to open, specifically $116 billion for extra safety measures. In July, she announced that union leadership would support local chapters engaging in “safety strikes” if school districts failed to follow health precautions.
“If authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve … nothing is off the table,” Weingarten warned. “Not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”
“One factor, one person is making them all worse: Donald J. Trump,” she said, referring to the pandemic, the economy, and the protests that swept the nation this summer.
The school year wore on through the winter, and a growing number of students and parents stuck at home who had once been determined to remain resilient through the crisis became more discouraged. As the fall semester drew to a close in December, thousands of children around the country found they had failed their classes.
In November, when New York City’s public school system shut down entirely again as coronavirus cases spiked, Weingarten acknowledged that in-person classes were not driving the city’s increased transmission rate. She argued, however, that schools were still vulnerable to the presence of the virus in the surrounding community despite transmission rates inside the city’s schools being significantly lower.
Weingarten, who previously headed the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT local union representing most teachers in New York City public schools, had previously approved of the city’s decision earlier in November to reopen some in-person learning with strict safety precautions.
Meanwhile, Weingarten admitted many times over the past year that virtual learning is “not the best way to engage kids” and “has not been good for kids.” She has acknowledged that children must return to in-person learning and said she wants classrooms to open back up as soon as possible, but the counterpull of hundreds of thousands of her union members who want to continue teaching from the safety of their homes remains strong.
Now, Trump is no longer president. Biden is not only approving teachers for the coronavirus vaccine but prioritizing them, and schools across the country are opening up their classrooms, especially private schools.
In January, Weingarten was criticized for advocating for a $22.7 billion coronavirus testing program for the spring semester, critics saying the cost and unwieldiness of such a plan would only delay school reopenings further.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its highly-anticipated and clearest guidance yet on reopening schools. The guidelines recommend in part that schools enforce six-foot physical distancing, allow students and teachers who are vulnerable to severe illness to opt out of in-person learning, and prioritize vaccinating teachers.
The CDC noted, however, that teacher vaccinations are not necessary for reopening schools.
Later in February, Weingarten was asked by Axios’ Dan Primack whether there is a point at which kids have been out of physical in-person school for so long that the education they have lost “isn’t really recoverable.”
“No, I don’t believe that. I believe that kids are resilient and kids will recover. But we as adults have to meet their needs,” Weingarten responded, adding that, “we have to believe that this is recoverable.”
Her response, which appeared to downplay the negative effects that isolation and virtual learning have had on American children, was promptly panned as out of touch. In one of the most disturbing instances of the negative effects of school closures on students, Clark County schools in Las Vegas were forced to reopen after 18 students committed suicide.
Meanwhile, prominent members of the union have been caught reaping the benefits of in-person learning for their own children even while calling for continued school closures. The president of a local AFT union, Berkeley Federation of Teachers president Matt Meyer was recorded taking his two-year-old daughter to a private pre-school school after advocating for keeping the local public school district shut until all teachers and staff are vaccinated.
As of February, about half of the country’s children have not returned to school. Some parents, meanwhile, say they have been driven to tears over prolonged closures.
“I understand parents’ frustration,” Weingarten said last month. “But the teachers and their unions didn’t create the pandemic.”
Some data suggests that fears about the coronavirus being passed between students and teachers in a school setting have been disproportionate. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found zero instances of child-to-adult transmission within schools among 90,000 students and staff in 11 North Carolina school districts who returned to in-person classes. Over nine weeks, there were 773 community-acquired coronavirus cases as well as 32 infections acquired in schools, the study found.
Biden said at a town hall last month that the goal is to have a “significant percentage” of K-8 schools open for in-person learning five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office.
“Uncertainty is going to be a fact of life,” Weingarten said in May.
Nearly a year later, her prediction feels more like a promise.