A call for school reopening and reimagining public education

AFT President Randi Weingarten delivered a landmark address May 13 outlining her vision for reopening schools, helping students recover and reimagining public education, as the country emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. Amid a polarized national education debate and lingering fears among parents over school safety, Weingarten backed the Biden administration’s deployment of billions in federal resources for full five-days-a-week reopening of schools and launched an unprecedented $5 million “Back to School for Everyone” campaign to realize it.


Randi Weingarten speech May, 2021
In the speech, “Return, Recover and Reimagine: Toward a Renaissance in America’s Public Schools,” delivered live from AFT headquarters, Weingarten spelled out the steps necessary to return safely to full in-person learning and build the support systems to help students socially, emotionally and academically. “There is no doubt: Schools must be open. In person. Five days a week. With the space and facilities to do so,” she said. “We know that’s how kids learn best and that prolonged isolation is harmful.”

“Educators have yearned to be back in school, with their students. They only asked for two things—a safe workplace during this pandemic and the resources they and their students need to succeed.”

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in.”

Weingarten argued that “we must do far more than physically return to schools. … We must put in place the supports to help students recover—socially, emotionally and academically.” This includes paying attention to the traumatizing “pandemic within a pandemic”—systemic racism—as COVID-19 has amplified racial inequities across the nation. “As much as we want to feel ‘normal’ again, we can do better than the old ‘normal,’” she said. “We don’t have to accept vast inequality, chronic underfunding and narrow test-based accountability systems. We have a rare opportunity to reimagine public schooling in America and to pursue bold initiatives that will help all our kids thrive.” This approach means understanding that the “safe and welcoming” schools we want are structurally sound but also safe from violence, discrimination and bigotry.

Weingarten also has visions for a better “pipeline” for more high school students to become teachers through programs that partner universities with secondary schools, for making college free and for canceling student debt.

Planning for fully reopening, the union published fresh polling May 12 that showed the last remaining piece of the schools reopening puzzle—a lingering lack of trust among parents in communities hit hard by COVID-19—can be overcome if districts adopt the safety guardrails recommended by the AFT: layered mitigation strategies, testing and vaccinations.

The game-changer for many has been the vaccine, she pointed out. “Our members have stepped up—according to our data, 89 percent of our members are fully vaccinated or want to be. And it’s really good news that just this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.”

Weingarten laid out 10 ideas, backed by real-world models, to match rhetoric with reality and fulfill the speech’s practical promise. The plan was backed by a formal resolution, passed by the AFT’s executive council on May 12.

  1. Launch a $5 million “Back to School for Everyone” national campaign to connect not just with teachers and school staff but also with families and communities to communicate the importance of in-school learning and build families’ trust and confidence in children returning to school.
  2. Form school-based committees of staff, parents and, where appropriate, students to plan for and respond to safety issues and to conduct safety “walk-throughs” in school buildings.
  3. Align health and pedagogical best practices by reducing class sizes to reflect the CDC’s 3-feet social distancing guidance. Eliminate simultaneous in-person and remote instruction.
  4. Designate “office hours” and clinics for AFT affiliates and others to call in to discuss ideas and get technical support.
  5. Roll out recovery programs this summer that provide academic support, help students get back into routines and offer lots of ways for kids to have fun.
  6. Promote community schools to build trust and remove obstacles to getting kids and families the support and services they need.
  7. Increase the emphasis on civics, science and project-based learning, to nurture critical thinking and bring learning to life.
  8. Commit funds from the American Rescue Plan to fill shortages of teachers, school counselors, psychologists and nurses.
  9. Encourage Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to form a task force to rethink how we assess student learning and how to measure what really counts.
  10. Engage stakeholders—families, educators and community partners—to ensure funds in the American Rescue Plan and other federal funds for schools are spent equitably and effectively.

Weingarten concluded on a determined, optimistic note. “I truly believe we have a rare chance to seed a renaissance in American public education—a time of a flowering in culture and learning as in the Harlem Renaissance and the European Renaissance. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to reopen and recover, but to reimagine our schools in a way that makes every public school a place where parents want to send their children, educators and support staff want to work and students thrive. This is our moment.”

The full speech is available here.

[AFT Communications staff]