Where We Stand: Tools, Time, and Trust—The Keys to Reopening and Recovery

The AFT is committed to ensuring that every person in America has the freedom to thrive—especially children. That’s why we’ve been fighting to safely reopen school buildings since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Children have gone hungry and suffered from social isolation. Families have struggled in so many ways, from tragic deaths to job losses. Although educators and school staff have made herculean efforts, remote learning was never a substitute for in-person learning—even for those students with reliable internet access. Despite legitimate fears for their own and their families’ health, educators understand the importance of in-person instruction, but they have a right to be safe.

Reopening schools safely requires tools, time, and trust. Tools of mitigation, testing, and resources to prevent transmission of this deadly, invisible virus and to meet the academic, emotional, and social needs of our students and families. Time to put those tools in place. And trust that as new information emerges—such as variants of COVID-19—district leaders and other key officials will work with us to prioritize safety. The Trump administration fell down on all of this.

Thankfully, the Biden administration is literally a breath of fresh air in this fight against the COVID-19 respiratory virus. It has been transparent and honest—making decisions based on science and on the needs of Americans. President Biden is committed to safely reopening the majority of K–8 school buildings for in-person learning in his first 100 days and has championed the bold level of funding needed to increase vaccinations, support state and local governments, and provide critical resources to schools and colleges. Under Biden’s leadership, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released (as it should have a year ago) a rigorous road map that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.

Since releasing our first reopening blueprint in April 2020, we’ve learned from our experiences: science is important, but so are common sense and collaboration. Buildings differ, as do communities’ resources. We have been calling for common sense and collaboration in applying six essential pillars for reopening:

  • COVID-19 testing must become a way of life in schools, with regular and rapid testing to monitor the virus.
  • Proper safety protocols—including masks, physical distancing, cleaning, and sanitizing procedures—and ventilation upgrades must be implemented.
  • High-risk teachers and school staff need appropriate accommodations to keep them safe.
  • Vaccine prioritization for teachers and school staff, starting with those doing in-person learning.
  • Given the new variants, communities need a metric for community infection rates that will trigger increasing safeguards, including temporary closures.
  • Safety committees, situation rooms, and building walk-throughs build trust and help to abate fear about reopening.

According to a recent poll of our members, 88 percent of educators favor this reopening plan and 85 percent would feel comfortable in their classrooms if these recommendations were followed.*

What should happen if a ventilation system needs major renovations? Not bringing in cheap fans that the manufacturer itself says are not appropriate for non-household use, as at least one large school district attempted. That’s why educators and parents protested. But there are common-sense solutions, which working together would produce, as it has in districts large and small, like New York City and Meriden, Connecticut. These include upgrading filters, cleaning vents, opening windows, and bringing in air purifiers and appropriate fans. Also, vaccinate the teachers and staff who want it, and since many families are still choosing remote instruction, prioritize vaccines for teachers and staff who will be working in schools.

Educators want what students need, but they deserve to be safe. And there are ways to do so. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has worked with the district on a massive testing and tracing strategy, with the data posted online. After more than 250,000 tests, the in-school positivity rate was just 0.42 percent. Ongoing testing and other mitigation strategies (personal protective equipment, HVAC upgrades, distancing, building walk-throughs to check safety protocols, and more) give educators and families confidence. The Boston Teachers Union negotiated a phased reopening, starting with in-person priority students, including special education students and English language learners. The Albuquerque Teachers Federation and district devised an accommodations plan that protects the highest-risk staff and those caring for high-risk family members. And, after the AFT pressed hard for educators and other essential workers to have vaccine priority (behind healthcare workers of course), the Washington Teachers’ Union won vaccinations for school staff and the UFT stood up its own vaccination effort.

This fight to safely reopen our buildings for in-person learning and to reconnect with our students is some of the hardest work educators have faced—made worse by the ongoing fights against austerity and hazards like lead, mold, and asbestos in schools. Together, we are overcoming the crises gripping our country. With President Biden’s recovery plan, our schools and colleges will have the resources to address trauma, meet emotional and academic needs, and ensure the full recovery of our students.

*For the poll results, visit go.aft.org/poll_on_return. (return to article)
For case studies, visit aft.org/reopen-schools. (return to article)

American Educator, Spring 2021