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Listening to Trump and DeVos on schools "not good for children or other living things," teachers union head says

Teachers union leader on reopening schools
Teachers union leader on reopening schools 13:09

The head of the nation's largest labor union is criticizing President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for what she calls "orders and threats from the Oval Office" as the administration pushes to fully reopen schools in the fall. 

"I represent 3 million teachers, support staff, secretaries, bus drivers, and any one of us is more qualified than Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos to talk about what we need to reopen schools safely," Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, told CBSN anchors Anne-Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers. 

García said she was "outraged" and "mystified" over a federal push for reopening that has included the president attacking CDC guidance as "very tough" and "expensive," and DeVos repeatedly calling for a return to in-person schooling despite ballooning coronavirus rates.

Mr. Trump has even threatened to pull federal funding from school districts that opt for remote learning. 

"Federal funding is what helps special education and school lunch," García said. "They will threaten our students if we don't obey them?" (Most school funding comes from state and local communities, not the federal government.)

In a word, she advised colleagues to "ignore" the statements by President Trump and Betsy DeVos. 

"Listening to them is not good for children or other living things," she said. 

García, who is also a sixth-grade teacher, said she and her union members will instead focus on doing "what is right."

"It's not going to be stuffing my 39 sixth-graders into an unsafe classroom," García said. She acknowledged the annual risk of flu infections spreading through schools, but said, "This is different. Someone coughs, someone can die." 

Mr. Trump has held up the examples of other countries like Denmark and Germany, which returned to in-person learning, as he pushes for students to return to the classroom.

But García pointed out that those countries "made their teachers and support staff emergency workers," instituted extensive testing and tracing, and provided personal protective gear that the U.S. government has not taken steps to produce in a similar fashion. 

"They made sure all kids were able to have the same opportunities, and that's what we need to do. Donald Trump did none of the above," she said.

She said the safest reopenings will be planned at the local level, involving everyone from parents who are considering household safety, to teachers and their interactions with students, and even custodians who would know "how we will disinfect" facilities.

"I think the biggest piece of the puzzle is that you're inclusive of everyone who has a stake in making sure it's done well," García said. "Where it's not been done well, it's a politician, it's the governor's office or a business roundtable saying 'it's easy, open up the schools.'"

García agreed that returning to in-person learning is critical for students' social development, and even more so for students who may not have the family support or financial stability to keep up their education from home. 

However, she said schools will have to incorporate "a combination of distancing, disinfecting, and the PPE equipment that you need" such as masks, gloves and daily health checks — even if that means teaching students "in shifts" of shorter school days and "running school buses an extra shift." 

"Think about what they are asking restaurants that opened up to do," she offered. "Why would it be any less for a school?"

For the federal government's part, García called out inaction on the part of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular, for not holding a vote on the House-approved HEROES Act — a piece of legislation which, according to García, would send billions of dollars to districts to "purchase the things we need to reopen schools safely." 

In contrast, the first pandemic stimulus package, the CARES Act, was quickly passed to provide billions of dollars in aid to business. 

"Why was it so easy to understand Shake Shack needed help, but not your local elementary school?" García questioned. "We want to do it right. We are going to need some help. Why aren't more politicians helping us?"

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