In the fight against COVID-19, the AFT is focused on members’ health, safety

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The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, and the World Health Organization has declared it a global pandemic. As clusters of coronavirus cases continue to emerge in communities where our members live and work—transforming daily life—the AFT is focused on prevention and precaution, treatment and the long-term economic impact of the outbreak.

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“Our attention has been on the health and safety of our families, friends and communities. We are working constantly to help you all and the people we serve navigate this virus, and buffer against the economic impacts,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten during a March 14 telephone town hall to discuss the outbreak.

The AFT has been coordinating a response since the virus’s initial outbreak overseas. The union has provided materials outlining preparedness plans for K-12 schools; colleges and universities; hospitals and other healthcare facilities; and other public spaces. It is also providing resources for members to make requests of their employers to ensure there are appropriate supplies, training and protocols in place in the event of virus spread and facility closures.

The union has an extensive collection of materials, including sample letters to elected officials; preparedness plans and fact sheets in several languages; guidelines for requests to employers; and extensive lesson plans, which are all housed on AFT’s website, and on the AFT’s free Share My Lesson platform. These resources are being updated regularly.

Weingarten urged members on the telephone call to work with their employers to get the pandemic plan so they will know how their facility will function if it is affected. She also emphasized the importance of social distancing, hand washing and testing.

“The number-one thing we need to do is to be able to track the virus. We need testing to know who is transmitting the virus,” said Weingarten. “The good news is that in China and South Korea, we’ve seen widespread testing and quarantines, and it seems to have stemmed the virus.”

As for the education sector, many colleges and universities have closed their doors and moved to online learning. Many states have closed their public schools to help prevent spread of the virus, so millions of students will be home for the next two weeks or longer. “Schools were initially leery about closing schools; but with the lack of testing, the harm of carrying the virus outweighs the harm caused by students having to stay at home,” said Weingarten.

“We have resources and materials to help teachers with distance learning,” she said, referring to the AFT’s free Share My Lesson platform. “This is not going to be a regular school year. We have to manage for the short term.”

AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly thanked the AFT for the resources made available to affiliates, which were needed when her state closed public schools from March 16 through April 6. AFT New Mexico worked with Gov. Lujan Grisham and the leadership of the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) to ensure school-based health clinics, access to meal sites, child care, and other essential functions remain open and available to students. “Our members and leaders couldn’t have been successful working with PED without the information provided from AFT,” said Ly.

As more people fall ill from the coronavirus, the AFT is also demanding that hospitals provide adequate masks, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and respiratory gear for nurses, techs and other service staff in hospitals, as well as people administering tests and transporting samples.

Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey, conducted a survey of members and learned about the lack of training and rationing of personal protective equipment. In response, HPAE joined a coalition of union allies to take action. “We have numerous stories from members who say they are being instructed to use surgical masks before the N95 masks run out,” said White. She explained that her members need to feel confident that they are getting the right training and the protective equipment necessary to keep them safe them while they provide patient care to those infected with COVID-19.

Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, said her local is part of a coalition of unions at Rutgers University in New Jersey that sent a letter to the school’s administration requesting COVID-19 safety protocols for staff as well as cleaning protocols for facilities. O’Connell said the university’s communications concerning the COVID-19 outbreak has been focused on students. The lives of staff are equally as valuable as the lives of students and faculty, said O’Connell. “They can do their work remotely; we want the same consideration given to others at the university.”

“Thankfully, things are turning around,” said Weingarten. Last week, the Trump administration declared a national emergency. In addition, the House of Representatives passed a coronavirus relief bill that includes free testing, two weeks paid sick leave, up to three months of paid family and medical leave, and expanded federal funding for Medicaid. The Senate will take up the measure on March 16. If the Senate passes the legislation and it is signed by President Trump, it will be combined with the $8.2 billion package that Congress passed last week, increasing the availability and decreasing the cost of coronavirus tests, developing an affordable vaccine, and increasing aid to state and local health budgets.

There will be a lot more information coming from the administration now that the federal government is finally getting its act together, said Weingarten. “If we stay together and listen to the experts and focus on the health and safety of people, we will get through this.”

[Adrienne Coles]