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American Federation of Teachers president on the fight to reopen schools safely

In this episode of Facing Forward, Margaret Brennan talks with Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President of the nation's second largest teachers union, about what it will take for teachers to feel safe to resume in-person lessons and how schools will help children catch up after what seems to be a lost year for many. 

Listen to this episode on ART19


  • On vaccinations not being a prerequisite for returning to school: "I'm not calling for vaccination to be a prerequisite. You know, I would love it if teachers had the priority...we know that these other mitigation factors are absolute prerequisites."
  • On what teachers need from Congress: "This is complex stuff. Not saying this is easy stuff. If it was easy stuff, districts and educators would have been able to do it months ago. But this is one of those few places where you can't just basically say the teachers just figure it out. It's a pandemic. It's a respiratory virus, and it gets a lot of people sick and a lot of people have died. So we have a roadmap for how to handle this. And so we're asking for the rest of that roadmap to be funded by the Congress as quickly as possible. And we're asking for the guidance as the floor, not the ceiling. But we're also, let me be clear, we're also asking to make sure that the testing that every industry does is there so we can track and see, you know, asymptomatic spread and-and we want and need teachers to get- to be vaccinated as soon as possible, be a priority, even though it's not a prerequisite."
  • On returning to full in-person learning by fall: "I am confident that if we've been able to tackle whatever variant comes our way and have the herd immunity that vaccination promises, I am confident that we will- that- that fall 2021 will look a lot more normal than we have right now."

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"Facing Forward": AFT's Randi Weingarten transcript

Producers: Richard Escobedo, Anne Hsu, Kelsey Micklas

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 12: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, prepares to testify during a House Education and Labor Committee Tom Williams









MARGARET BRENNAN: Randi Weingarten, thank you so much for joining us.


MARGARET BRENNAN: So you head up the second largest teacher's labor union in the country. You've got more than 3,000 affiliates, nearly 2 million members. You're on the national level, but then when we look at the country, each community seems to be handling the question of how to reopen schools differently. How are you directing the local unions on what to do?

WEINGARTEN: So we are a union of, as you said, about 3,500 affiliates, all of whom are autonomous, just like all the school districts in America are pretty much autonomous. But one of my criticisms of the last administration is that they never put out consistent guidance with clarity, moored in the public health- was when they put things out it was political and they didn't fund it. So, what you have is about 13,000 school districts in America doing 13,000 different things and that's not how you handle a public health pandemic. What we tried to do in response to that is as early as last April, we put out- our union put out a plan and not whether to reopen schools, but how to reopen schools safely. You have to have the mitigation strategies that limit transmission that includes masks and ventilations and physical distancing. And since we don't know what's going to happen with the variant, we can't have a situation like we had last March. Or like you saw in Great Britain where schools were open one Friday and then they were closed on Monday.


WEINGARTEN: We have to create that kind of planning.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you are working from home, we should note, just like I am right now. I hear you're dog there in your New York City apartment.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ok, so you have criticized the Trump administration for the lack of a national plan. We know the Biden administration is going to unveil national guidelines and CBS has obtained some of them. And I want to know what you think, because the mitigation practices that we know of include, you know, having teachers and students wear masks, social distancing, hand hygiene guidelines- guidelines on how to cough and sneeze properly, ventilation facility guidance, contact tracing. But the big thing, the vaccinations, it is not laid out as a prerequisite for schools to reopen. How do you justify that to teachers?

WEINGARTEN: So, you know, it's hard for teachers to hear that they are priorities. And that schools are really- that it's really important for our country, for schools to be reopened. And for them not to have immediate access to vaccines, and for vaccines not to be a precondition and- and there are people who are very angry about that. We have to make sure that the mitigation strategies are there and are essential and we got to keep that real. And then we have to fight to make sure that teachers are prioritized and that we align that prioritization with those who are in school right now or going into school. What vaccines do is that they create another layer of protection. What vaccines don't do as- as far as we know, is that they're not what prevents transmission from happening. It's these mitigation strategies like masking, like social distancing, like good ventilation that prevents transmission from happening. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you are also not calling for vaccination to be a prerequisite? 

WEINGARTEN: I'm not calling for vaccination to be a prerequisite. I- You know, I- I would love it if- if- if- if teachers had the priority. And in fact, we have fought for them to have priority for several months. And we're pleased that- that- that the CDC said that in November or December. But we know that- that- that these other mitigation factors are absolute prerequisites. And that's--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would it be helpful to you if the Biden administration clearly said teachers, they got to go to the front of the line ahead of other essential workers?

WEINGARTEN: I think it would be very helpful if there was a consistent message throughout the United States that educators are a priority for the vaccine. I think that would be very, very, very helpful, just like health care workers were a priority. Now, you know, I say this knowing- not- not putting teachers in the same category as health care workers.The argument was because those workers are so essential, we wanted to protect them in community spread as well as in-in hospitals. And that's the same argument for educators and for grocery workers and- and other essential workers. And so we're fighting for educators to be a priority. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: One of the things, when we were looking through the blueprint that your union laid out, is that it- it- it calls for a decline in new cases for 14 days. But what we've seen in so many cities, like in New York, it's that stickiness of setting a positivity rate benchmark in a community. How do you decide that, or is it just that there can't be a national benchmark? That each city has to decide what an acceptable level of virus swirling around is for it to be safe for schools to reopen.

WEINGARTEN: So when we first put out the original guidelines, that was the same as what Trump had put out or the former president had put out about the positivity rates being- going down, not up.


WEINGARTEN: And so you're completely right that each region is different. Each, you know, the way in which people count are different. But that's part of the- part of the failure of the Trump administration not to have even some consistency about how you collect the data. If you having a surge, if you're having an outbreak, it doesn't actually matter whether you're collecting cases, or looking at the number of people you've tested, or the number of people in the population. You know, if you're having a surge, that's a bad thing. You know, if there's an outbreak in the school, like in a classroom, you've got to close the classroom. If--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But In New York City the shutdown happened when the positivity rate hit like 3%--

WEINGARTEN: Well, I think--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because of the deal with the union--


MARGARET BRENNAN: --so like should there be a hard and fast rule?

WEINGARTEN: Well, MARGARET, I think that that was- truth be told, the union didn't negotiate that 3%. Our position at the beginning of this crisis was that schools could reopen if there was 5% or less positivity in a community. That's what we did with Governor Cuomo. What Bill de Blasio did was he saw those state guidelines and he said, I want to make sure that I do one better and really make sure that teachers are not fearful, so I'm going to lower to 3%. So we didn't negotiate that. The real issue became that- that he was- he and the governor had different numbers. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. Well, exactly, I mean, you're- this is the- part of the messiness of this entire crisis is we're getting into local governments and differences between cities and states and national. But right now, if we take a snapshot of the country, we're coming off the highest death and infection rates of the entire pandemic. And we've got these mutant strains circulating. Even Dr. Fauci has said that may prevent it from being possible to reopen all schools. But right now you are supporting opening them. So what has changed? 

WEINGARTEN: Well, actually for us nothing has changed. I mean, I shouldn't say nothing has changed. The guidance about how to reopen, the roadmap about how to reopen has essentially been the same for months. The issue about the variant is that the variant may create so much more new infection that and- and with very intense transmissibility that it just overshadows everything else. And so what we're saying is you've got to account for that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So that means we have to be prepared to hit the brakes and shut down schools again?

WEINGARTEN: Correct. If that- if that happens. Exactly right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: How do you decide to do that? Is it a benchmark positivity rate or is it something else?

WEINGARTEN: There has to be a combination of a positivity rate and, you know, and-and seeing the trends and the scientists have to think about what that is. The point of having one, though, is that it gives parents and teachers and community some notice. Think of what- what happened in Great Britain. You know, Boris Johnson kept saying schools are safe, schools are safe. And then within a 24 hour period of time when he saw the transmission rates in London.


WEINGARTEN: - All of a sudden schools were closed the next day.  That's not fair to people. And so we're not- we're asking for this not to be politicized. But, you know, the CDC doesn't have any reports on- on- on what to do, you know, in terms of, you know, what happens if the variants gets here. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So President Biden set a goal of reopening schools within his first 100 days, which puts us at the end of April. The White House seemed to move the goalposts a little closer this week. Here's White House spokesperson Jen Psaki.


JEN PSAKI: His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools — so, more than 50 percent — open by day 100 of his presidency. And that means some teaching in classrooms. So, at least one day a week. Hopefully, it's more. And obviously, it is as much as is safe in each school and local district.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you know where the White House got that one day a week goal from? Is that the reality that the union has told them is feasible?

WEINGARTEN: No. It's the reality of what- of- of the lack of space in school systems and in schools and how you ensure the physical distancing. I mean, we have said for months that in order to actually move from a hybrid system to more- to, you know, more full in-person, you need about 30 to 40% more space and 30 to 40% more educators. So it's frankly looking at the science.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So what's the difference with a state like Connecticut, with a Democratic governor, where they have a lot of in-person learning? How is it that they've already been able to do it? Is it just a matter of income level at the local level? What is it that makes the difference for a school that's already been able to do it?

WEINGARTEN: Well, it's about five or six different things. You actually had many more places that had reopened for school learning in September, October, November with the surges like in California, you saw a lot more shutdowns for a period of time at that point. The places that were closed didn't have the money to put the mitigation strategies into effect. The places that were closed, like take a New Haven in Connecticut, or a Philly in Pennsylvania, they didn't retrofit their ventilation systems. They didn't have the money for PPE. They didn't do the work they needed to do to have the mitigation strategies intact. So it comes down to both the fidelity to the mitigation strategies and the resources to do it. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And with that, I mean, you're seeing parents who can afford it, some moving their children to private schools for in-person instruction. And that it is widening in many ways some of the gaps that exist that overlap with minority students and their counterparts as well--

WEINGARTEN: Well what--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --that has to get really concerning for you.

WEINGARTEN: Well, look, I- I often tease that I'm Jewish, so everything concerns me. But obviously everything about this pandemic concerns me. The inequities that have been exacerbated concerns me. The fact that private schools that got PPP early on in the pandemic from the federal government response were able to put in the testing and the mitigation strategies that really worked. The testing, which we have not talked about, is really, really important as how you can manage in school learning during this period of time that I believe--



MARGARET BRENNAN: --what is your recommendation on that? How often a week should teachers and students be tested? Because this has been a point of contention at the local level.

WEINGARTEN: Right, well, it's been more than a point of contention at the local level, and in most municipalities there's no money to create this testing. This is part of the reason why it's great that the Biden rescue plan has about $23 billion attached to it for that kind of testing. So--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But it doesn't specifically spell out how many times, does it?

WEINGARTEN: It doesn't what- we're- what- what New York City has done is 20% of the students and educators in school any particular week have surveillance testing. What Rockefeller Institute and we suggested is that you test all the teachers if we have quick if-if- if we're going to get these rapid tests, which I think are coming online shortly, you test teachers twice a week and kids once a week. But you can do what New York City has done, its enough so that you can see what's unseen. And that's what the private schools are doing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Randi, stay with us. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back. 


MARGARET BRENNAN: So, President Biden's rescue plan has about one hundred and thirty billion dollars set aside for schools to modify classrooms or all the things that you were telling us about, being socially distance, upgrading ventilation. But that package isn't likely to be passed until March. That's too late for spring reopening. The teachers need this now.

WEINGARTEN:  Yes, absolutely, which is part of the reason why we fought so hard to get Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to give us resources back last May. But thankfully, we got some resources in the December package, so that can be a down payment. The issue right now is this. This is complex stuff. Not saying this is easy stuff. If it was easy stuff, districts and educators would have been able to do it months ago. But this is one of those few places where you can't just basically say the teachers just figure it out. It's a pandemic. It's a respiratory virus, and it gets a lot of people sick and a lot of people have died. So we have a roadmap for how to handle this. And so we're asking for the rest of that roadmap to be funded by the Congress as quickly as possible. And we're asking for the guidance as the floor, not the ceiling. But we're also, let me be clear, we're also asking to make sure that the testing that every industry does is there so we can track and see, you know, asymptomatic spread and-and we want and need teachers to get- to be vaccinated as soon as possible, be a priority, even though it's not a prerequisite. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So if the funding is not there to do all these things in time for the spring, should we be planning on a summer semester to play catch up?

WEINGARTEN: We should be planning on a summer semester, a voluntary summer semester, to play catch up regardless. Because what- because kids have lost out a lot because of this pandemic. Look, we've had months and months of not- of- of non-normalcy. We've had months and months of loneliness. There's lots of things we need to do to address for- for kids. So we've been- we've been proposing that- that the summer is a second- second semester, not a semester of remediation, but one where kids can actually have a program of enrichment and joy. And, frankly, families who can afford it send their kids to camp. 


WEINGARTEN: We need to make sure that that kind of stuff happens this summer so kids get their mojo back.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So do you want the Biden administration to- and their education department to say this has to happen? There needs to be a way that school districts figure out how to fund and how to staff a summer semester? And- and are all of your unions on board with that-- 

WEINGARTEN: Look there's--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --a longer school year?

WEINGARTEN: You're always going to find some people in my union who completely disagree, but we are a democracy and everybody's voice counts. What I think- what you're hearing from locals around the country is that people are really exhausted. So it has to be voluntary and we have to figure out ways of- of, you know, doing this. So ultimately, there's 30 or 40 billion dollars in- in Joe Biden's rescue package that is intended for the kind of, you know, recovery of- academic recovery, social emotional recovery. And- and I believe that that can be started this summer. We're going to have to do a lot of recovery next year.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I hear everything you're saying, and it makes sense in terms of the need for summer semester or catch up to help really just repair the damage that has been done. Do we need to hear that clearly from the White House and the Education Department?

WEINGARTEN: Look, hopefully we will be hearing things very clearly from the Education Department as soon as Miguel Cardona is actually confirmed as- as education secretary--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Sure, but Joe Biden has the bully pulpit. He could be saying this right now. Teachers, you got to help me out here. You got to show up this summer. I mean, he's talked about lost earning potential for these kids-- 

WEINGARTEN: I think he's-

MARGARET BRENNAN: --over decades to come.

WEINGARTEN: I actually think that Joe Biden has been pretty clear about the need for schools reopening, about what we need to do to make sure that those schools are safe, about the needs to help our kids. The- the Education Department is not the school board for everywhere, but it can use the bully pulpit. It can get us the funding. We can get the guidance. We now have a bunch of different good templates about how to reopen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the learning loss has hit minority communities the toughest. But then in the city of Chicago, it was majority, white and majority Asian families who wanted to get back to in-person instruction. Like you mentioned, it was Black families who were the most hesitant to come back. Does that mean that we need to keep remote learning an option to address the problem, or does it just continue to allow kids to fall through the cracks? Is this an insufficient response?

WEINGARTEN: Look, just like with vaccine hesitancy, we have to deal with the skepticism that people have, particularly our communities-our vulnerable communities throughout the United States about whether or not we're keeping their kids safe. And- and that takes trust and collaboration. But one thing that I've watched and frankly, I'm a big believer in vaccines, and I'm a big believer that 100% of people should be vaccinated. But you can't in America start with a mandate. You have to, in America, be able to convince people and quell fear and meet fear with facts. Part of what is so troublesome in our country right now is that we had a last administration that believed in an alternative reality. And we have a lot of work to do to actually try to help Americans, our kids in schools--


WEINGARTEN: --but American families discern fact from fiction and- and be able to quell the fear and the skepticism that's out there.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Does that mean we will have in-person instruction across the country by the fall? Are you confident that you can say that at this point?

WEINGARTEN: So I am- I think that we are going to, you know, let me say this. I am confident that if we've been able to tackle whatever variant comes our way and have the herd immunity that vaccination promises, I am confident that we will- that- that fall 2021 will look a lot more normal than we have right now. Am I working- and is my union and are my members working as hard as they can to make that so? Yes. The problem is we don't know what this virus will do to us. So the vaccine, you know, getting as many shots in the arm, getting these protocols and these into schools and these mitigation strategies done, having the testing so that we can see what's unseen. All of those things getting that done will really help us get to the goal of normalcy next year.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Randi, thank you so much for your time.

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