The head of the American Federation of Teachers dismissed as a “myth” the idea that teachers don’t want to reopen schools, but she warned that reopening will take more taxpayer money — putting an awkward confrontation with unions at the forefront of the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said Sunday that union members are eager to return to the classroom but want to make sure it is safe.
“I do actually want to debunk this myth that teacher unions — at least our union — doesn’t want to reopen schools,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Teachers know that in-person education is really important, and we would have said that pre-pandemic. We knew that remote education, you know, is not a good substitute.
“If the NFL could figure out how to do this, in terms of testing and the protocols, if schools are that important, let’s do it,” she said.
The debate over reopening schools is raging across the country as concerns grow about the harm the lack of in-person learning is having on students and their families as they juggle the challenges of virtual learning.
President Biden has said on multiple occasions that he would like public schools to reopen during the first 100 days of his administration and vowed to follow the science in seeking to meet that goal.
Mr. Biden’s rescue package, which is expected to pass the House this week, includes $130 billion to help K-12 schools cover costs associated with reopening schools safely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said evidence shows in-person learning is safe in schools that follow social distancing and that vaccinating teachers should not be considered a prerequisite for reopening.
The CDC also has offered guidelines outlining how schools can reopen safely.
Meanwhile, the average daily number of new COVID-19 cases has declined.
Some local teachers unions — including in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Fairfax County — are not pushing for school reopenings soon.
They have cited, among other things, safety concerns and the need for teacher vaccinations.
The situation has opened Mr. Biden to criticism that he has put the interests of teachers unions ahead of the well-being of students for political reasons.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, said Sunday that “our kids can’t wait.”
“The science says they can be in the classroom today,” Mr. Scalise said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“The question is, is the will there for some politicians in Washington who are bowing to the teachers unions right now?” Mr. Scalise said.
He questioned why the administration is seeking more money for schools when roughly $60 billion from relief packages last year remains unspent.
He said the money Mr. Biden is seeking for schools as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package should be tied to a requirement that schools must reopen if they tap into those funds.
“The biggest concern … is they’re saying they want to pass over $100 billion of new money that’s not even tied to schools’ reopening,” he said. “So the question remains: Why do they need hundreds of billions of dollars of new money from the federal government if they won’t reopen schools?”
Mr. Biden opposes the idea.
“That’s not a contingency that … we’re recommending to go in the bill or in legislation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I think what he believes is that school districts working with our secretary of education, who we certainly hope will be confirmed this week, need to make a determination about what works best for them based on these CDC guidelines,” she said.
Ms. Psaki said the relief package is key to getting children back into classrooms because many schools lack the funding needed to set up mitigation measures, such as vaccinating teachers, hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes.
Ms. Weingarten said “there’s no perfect solution” for reopening schools and “teachers unions are not monolithic.”
She said the good news is that schools have a road map thanks to the CDC guidelines and the additional school funding the White House is fighting for in the coronavirus relief package.
“It comes down to three things: … the layered mitigation strategies, the testing, so you can actually see asymptomatic spread, and vaccine prioritization,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Not that every single teacher needs to be vaccinated before you open any schools, but you should align the vaccine prioritization with the reopening of schools.”
During an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, said it is hard to quantify the risk to unvaccinated teachers and that the situation poses unique challenges.
“It’s not an easy issue,” Mr. Fauci said. “Anybody that says it’s an easy decision to make, they’re not looking at the complexity of it.”
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