The head of the nation's second-largest teachers union Thursday called for fully reopening K-12 schools this fall, adding that efforts to convince some families to come back to class may require the zeal of a political campaign.
The announcement from Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, signals a shift after local unions in some communities put up fierce resistance to reopening while pushing for better safeguards for teachers.
"Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open," Weingarten said. "We're all in."
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The National Education Association, the country's largest national teachers union, issued a statement Thursday saying it supports school buildings being open to students for in-person instruction in the fall. © Spencer Platt, Getty ImagesA call Thursday by the country's second-largest teachers union to fully reopen schools in the fall could lift a key barrier to a return to a traditional school schedule, given the concerns over safety raised by many union members, like these who marched through Brooklyn last September.
A minority of schools - about 12% - were operating remote-only instruction as of March, according to government data. But many families, particularly those of color, have continued with virtual learning even after schools have reopened for in-person learning. © Colin Boyle, APAmerican Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks as Chicago Public Schools teachers picket Thursday morning, Oct. 17, 2019, at Lane Tech High School in Chicago.
Among the majority of schools considered reopened, about 1 in 3 were allowing students to attend only a few days a week on a hybrid schedule, the data shows.
Weingarten praised COVID-19 vaccines for helping to get educators safely back to class, but she called for upholding 3 feet of distance between people in schools, a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will be difficult to implement if every child returns to class this fall. © StreamYard screen captureRandi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers called Thursday for fully reopening all K-12 schools this fall. "Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open," she said.
She said other tactics to mitigate spreading the virus need to include wearing masks, washing hands, providing good ventilation, and testing and contract tracing for COVID-19 in schools.
As for teaching and learning itself, Weingarten called for schools to end the "disastrous" practice of teachers simultaneously trying to engage students in person while virtual learners beam in from home.
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Union influence on reopening schools
The two big national teachers unions have faced criticism over their perceived influence in the CDC's school reopening guidelines under President Joe Biden, whose campaign was supported by unions.
The New York Post reported email exchanges between union leaders and CDC officials, saying that some of the union's recommendations were transferred verbatim to the published guidance.
Weingarten has said lobbying for members' safety is routine and appropriate, but Republicans in Congress have asked for more information involving the role of the unions in the development of the CDC guidance.
The CDC rolled out guidance in February that gave schools a green light to reopen, with mitigation measures, in areas with low to moderate community spread of the virus.
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Yet many teachers around the country opposed returning to buildings, often saying that they didn't trust their schools' reopening plans would keep them safe. Some unions held out for widespread staff vaccinations before resuming in-person learning. In many states where unions are weaker, particularly in the south, schools reopened for full-time instruction much faster and long before vaccines were available.
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The drumbeat of children returning to school for their mental, physical and academic well-being has grown for months, and districts are frantically designing ways to put approximately $123 billion in federal education relief money to work to help students recovery academically.
Weingarten said teachers would reach out to families about the value of students going back in person. Her union is committing $5 million to a "get out the vote"-style campaign in which teachers would hold open houses and go knocking on doors.
Mixed reactions from parents
Melissa Bello, a parent in Needham, Massachusetts, said she appreciated the Weingarten's message and hopes the union's stance will put pressure on districts that are not yet fully open.
But she worried that the emphasis on social distancing and smaller class sizes may undercut reopening.
"I feel it might leave the door open for some larger districts to not fully reopen five days a week, because they still won't have enough space," said Bello, part of a parents group, Bring Kids Back Massachusetts, which advocated for reopening buildings.
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Laura Zorc, a parent and the director of education reform for FreedomWorks, a conservative, Washington D.C.-based group that advocates for limited government, said Weingarten's call to reopen is "too little, too late."
Two leaders of groups that work with predominantly Black families said many parents will continue to be reluctant to send their children to reopened buildings.
"Black people have had no reason to trust the district to protect their children," said Sonya Thomas, the executive director of Nashville PROPEL, a parent group.
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In Oakland, California, about two-thirds of the district's 35,000 students were still learning from home a month after schools started to reopen, according to the Oaklandside, a nonprofit news site.
Lakisha Young, CEO of the The Oakland REACH, which advocates for parents, said families shouldn't be forced to send their children back - especially if there's no plan to improve in-person instruction for children of color.
Rather, she said, schools should ask families choosing to stay remote what's working for them and how the district can help improve the experience.
"Let's be more innovative around hearing the voices of families and what they want to do," Young said.
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We're all in': Second-largest teachers union calls for reopening all schools in the fall