With most of the nation in the sixth week of the coronavirus shutdown, more than 30,000 AFT members participated in a telephone town hall April 21 to talk about what comes next as Americans begin to chart a path forward to a post-pandemic world.
Joining AFT President Randi Weingarten for the discussion were Govs. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. “These three governors have done amazing work to address the health and safety of our frontline members,” Weingarten said as she introduced them on the call.
Over nearly 90 minutes, the governors, AFT members and Weingarten talked about two overriding questions: how to safely reopen public schools and the economy in general, and how to counter the financial threat the crisis poses to resources for education and other essential public services.
Reopening the nation’s economy does not have to be an “either/or proposition,” Weingarten said, referring to President Trump’s tendency to see the choice as between staying safe at home or saving the economy. The real question, she said, is “how do we reopen safely? First and foremost, it has to be safe.”
Public health, the economy, business operations and functioning schools do not have to be at odds with each other, she said. “We must have wider testing, which governors have sought from the beginning,” Weingarten said. “Without it, staying at home becomes the only way to stop the virus from spreading.”
Pritzker agreed, “You can’t just announce the reopening of the economy without making it safe for people. I have a particular disdain for people like the president who make promises and don’t keep them. We’ve got to tell the truth.” Some say this is a choice between “saving lives or saving livelihoods,” he added. “By looking for ways to keep people safe, both are possible.”
Speaking directly to educators on the call and noting that she is “a proud AFT member,” Whitmer said, “The crisis has turned your lives upside down. The best thing we can do now is to make sure we can return happy and healthy at the start of the next school year.”
The nation is in uncharted territory, Lujan Grisham said. “The virus is here. It will live among us forever now. So we must think about new approaches at least until there is a vaccine.”
Weingarten suggested this summer presents opportunities to try out some new approaches to how schools will operate when they reopen. Where it is safe and appropriate, she said, voluntary summer school sessions might provide a starting point for figuring out how schools will function in the new academic year starting next fall. New protocols for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, protective gear such as masks, and the configuration of classroom space are all part of the discussion going on now with public health and safety experts and educators.
Even when the nation emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, state and local governments, public school districts, and public colleges and universities will still be dealing with its long-term budget impacts, as their revenues have declined in the economic slowdown. “These governors need funding for their states,” Weingarten said. The AFT, she noted, is disappointed that the stimulus package likely to be approved this week does not provide the needed aid for states and localities.
However, she said, “We are mounting a full-court press to make sure that funding is in the next relief legislation taken up by Congress.” The AFT has joined with others to support a $500 billion aid package for state and local governments, public education and the U.S. Postal Service. She urged people to sign the letter supporting a reinvestment in public services.
All states are facing a real challenge, Pritzker said. In Illinois, voters have a chance in November to approve a fair income tax proposal. But even if it passes, that won’t solve everything, he said.
“We need the federal government’s help—there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “My profound wish and desire is that we stay on the path we’ve been on to increase funding for our K-12 education system. Without federal help, it will be near impossible.”
In speaking about Trump’s frequent calls for governors to show some appreciation for the federal assistance they receive—whether medical or monetary—Lujan Grisham said: “I shouldn’t have to be grateful for a federal government that works for me. I should never have to feel like I am supposed to be grateful for a government that meets its responsibilities to its people.”