Back to School for All tour emphasizes safe return to classrooms

For most of a month, AFT President Randi Weingarten has been crisscrossing the country, visiting dozens of cities in her quest to let families know that schools are reopening with full-time, in-school learning in safe and welcoming environments.

Randi Weingarten at school visit

This week she is in Puerto Rico for two days, after visiting Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana last week. On Aug. 21, the Back-to-School for All campaign will take her to Cleveland, with four more cities on the tour this month and many more scheduled in September. It’s all part of the AFT’s ongoing efforts to encourage students and staff to return to full-time, in-person school by helping to create the healthy, safe and welcoming learning environments that kids need to thrive.

“This year, our back-to-school campaign is focused on getting all children back to the classrooms where we know they learn best from the highly qualified educators they know and trust,” Weingarten said when the tour launched at the end of July. And she noted that federal funding from the coronavirus rescue package and the American Rescue Plan has enabled communities throughout the country to make schools safer.

“Schools are critical for our kids’ recovery,” she said, noting that after 18 months of turmoil through the COVID-19 pandemic, students and educators now face a new challenge with the Delta variant of the coronavirus. “We’ll engage the entire school family to create school environments where everyone feels safe—and where students can once again make connections and experience the joy and hope of learning.

Many stops along the tour have highlighted the efforts of local AFT affiliates that include:

  • Getting all kids back in school, including those who had low attendance last year during remote and hybrid instruction.
  • Promoting and conducting COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
  • Holding neighborhood block parties to welcome students and their families back for the new school year.
  • Giving away free books (through the AFT’s partnership with the First Book organization) to kids who otherwise could not afford the have their own books.

The AFT committed $5 million to fund those and many other Back-to-School for All projects. Some 70 local AFT affiliates have received grants through the program, and more than 1,800 locals are actively participating in the effort championing a return to five-days-a-week, brick-and-mortar instruction. Their efforts, Weingarten said, affect school systems across 28 states and territories and more than 20 million students.

A sampling of Back to School tour events includes a gathering at Independence High School in Rio Rancho, N.M., with school district officials and Billie Helean, president of the Rio Rancho School Employees Union.

Weingarten praised the management-union partnership in the Rio Rancho effort to bring kids back for the new school year. Working together, teachers and other school staff have joined with the school district administration to reach out to the 900 families with children who did not enroll during the last year.

In St. Louis, a Safe Start Celebration was organized by AFT St. Louis and the St. Louis Public Schools. The event featured games and other entertainment for children, a book and school supplies giveaway—and a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.

“This how you rebuild trust,” Weingarten said of the St. Louis gathering. “People coming back together, working together, giving each other the information we need to ensure schools are safe and healthy. We’re rebuilding communities together so that we have a good school year.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona joined Weingarten in New York City at P.S./M.S. 5 Port Morris School of Community Leadership during the Back to School stop in the Bronx.

At this event, the emphasis was on safety for everyone returning to in-person school. “We need to make sure that we get all our kids back in school and keep them safe,” Weingarten said. “So, vax up and mask up.”

The AFT has consistently urged school and other public officials to follow the science on safety measures. “When science and evidence speak, we listen,” Weingarten said in recent news media interviews. She has emphasized that public health mitigation strategies—masking and vaccination—are the pathway to getting back to in-person schooling. “Vaccines work. Vaccines are safe. And vaccines save lives,” she said following AFT executive council adoption of a resolution on workplace vaccination policies.

In remarks at the Bronx event, Cardona focused on the benefits of having students and teachers safely together in their classrooms. “Students learn best in the classroom,” he said. “And we have to give them the opportunity to get into the classroom and build relationships.”

[Tom Lansworth]