This union leader says she can get teachers back in schools.
Randi Weingarten, the most powerful teachers’ union president in the United States, has a message: She wants to get students back in the nation’s classrooms.
She spends 15 hours per day on the phone, she says — with local labor leaders, mayors, the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — trying to figure out how to reopen the three-quarters of school systems that remain fully or partly closed.
But with the pandemic approaching its first anniversary, and a new president — a union ally — vowing to reopen elementary and middle schools within his first 100 days, she faces a difficult truth: In the liberal cities and suburbs where schools are most likely to remain closed, teachers’ unions are the most powerful forces saying no, not yet.
Not before teacher vaccinations, they say, or upgraded school ventilation systems, or accommodations for educators with vulnerable relatives.
The Chicago union had ground reopening to a halt before reaching a tentative deal on Sunday with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, averting a strike and agreeing to return K-8 students to classrooms by early March. The Philadelphia local is threatening to refuse to enter school buildings this week.
And California unions have left that state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, so frustrated that in a recent meeting he lashed out, saying, “If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth: There will be no in-person instruction in the state of California.”
That puts Ms. Weingarten, leader of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union and a close ally of President Biden, in a tight spot. Responsive to her 3,000 locals, which sometimes push her from the left, she is also sensitive to a situation so historic as to be difficult to comprehend: For 10 months, tens of millions of children have had no access to in-person public education.
Young children unable to learn productively via screens, low-income students without reliable home internet, those with disabilities and other vulnerable groups have been hit hardest from lack of access to the academics and social services only school buildings can provide.
“We have to get this done,” Ms. Weingarten said of resuming in-person education — something she thinks can be accomplished safely even before teachers are widely vaccinated, provided certain conditions are met, such as in-school virus testing.
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