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American Federation Of Teachers President On Path Forward Amid Debate Over Reopening Schools

Kindergarten teacher Christine Figueroa wears a mask as she watches a gym class where her students are participating remotely and in person at school in Oct. 2020 in Yonkers, New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Kindergarten teacher Christine Figueroa wears a mask as she watches a gym class where her students are participating remotely and in person at school in Oct. 2020 in Yonkers, New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Since schools closed nearly a year ago in the United States, plans have been gradually forming to bring teachers and students back to the classroom for in-person learning.

President Biden thinks it's time for schools to reopen safely, and says later this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release guidelines on returning to classrooms.

But many teachers are still hesitant about returning to school without safety measures in place, expressing concerns about a need for vaccinations for all educators and building renovations to allow for better ventilation.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees that teachers should return to in-person instruction.

"We know that in-person learning is really important for kids. Frankly, any teacher would tell you that." she says. "But it has to be safe."

At the heart of hesitation among teachers is their shared constant disappointment, Weingarten says. Prior to the pandemic, teachers were promised things — such as new instructional materials or infrastructure repairs within school buildings — that were never delivered. Their trust further eroded last year when former President Donald Trump dismissed and downplayed the virus.

"We have to meet fear with facts," Weingarten says. "If teachers feel safe, then communities will feel safe."

There are a few school districts that are getting it right, including Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, New York City and Boston, Weingarten says. Their mitigation strategies are clear cut and enforceable by a labor management committee.

Those cities are also prioritizing vaccinations for teachers, providing accommodations for people at risk and guidance in case of an outbreak, she says.

"That is the framework by which we can make everyone in a school safe," Weingarten says.

Vaccines bring promise that life could return to normal soon, but new variants present a variable of uncertainty. Biden can meet his goal of returning to in-person instruction for K-8 students this spring by accounting for new variants, giving teachers resources through the relief package and setting clear safety standards, she says.

And if there's more progress toward herd immunity through vaccinations, Weingarten says there's a chance things could be fully returned to normal by next school year.


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jeannette Jones adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.