More than 185,000 viewers logged on to watch the livestream of the AFT’s roundtable event with Jill Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and AFT President Randi Weingarten, who discussed the steps necessary to safely reopen the nation’s public schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their July 9 conversation, which also included remarks from AFT leaders in four different states, was streamed live on Facebook and came just two days after the Trump administration launched an effort demanding that schools open even if they are not able to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines. That approach is both dangerous and reckless, Biden, Warren and Weingarten agreed.
“Educators want to be back in their schools and classrooms,” Weingarten said. “Teachers and parents want to make sure that this is a good academic year for kids. But we need a plan for reopening safely.” Most school systems, she said, are likely to develop hybrid schedules of remote, mixed and in-person classes for the coming year.
Instead of doing what a normal leader would do, she said, “President Trump demands that schools reopen without plans to keep children, teachers and families safe, and with no funding for the measures that could make that possible without risking the well-being and even the lives of those involved.”
Jill Biden, a community college professor and former K-12 teacher who kept up her teaching career even during her husband, Joe Biden’s, service as vice president, said, “We have to get the reopening of schools right.” And Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and local school administrators should be listening to teachers because “you know better than anyone what our students need.”
“Joe will listen to educators,” she said of her husband, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president who has the backing of the American Federation of Teachers. “We are so proud to have the AFT on our side.”
Warren said the latest Trump pronouncements on public schools are just more of the same in his response to the COVID-19 crisis, which she called “cruel, heartless and incompetent.” The president and DeVos have “failed our students and failed our schools,” she said.
The Trump administration and some state leaders, Warren said, “don’t seem to realize that you can’t just snap your fingers and reopen schools.”
Weingarten pointed to a recent nationwide AFT survey of K-12 educators, paraprofessionals, and higher education faculty and staff that found 76 percent of those responding support going back to school if proper safeguards are in place. Those include physical distancing, adequate ventilation and cleaning, and necessary face coverings and other personal protective equipment.
“We know our kids need to go back to school,” Weingarten said. The same poll showed that the vast majority of educators say digital, remote learning simply does not meet students’ needs when compared with in-person instruction.
“It’s not just the loss of learning,” she said. “Beyond that, what teachers are concerned about is how kids are doing. Educators know that nearly all students benefit from face-to-face engagement and socialization with peers and their teachers.”
Biden shared a story that seemed to confirm that. Soon after Hurricane Maria, she visited a school in Puerto Rico that had been severely damaged by the storm. But teachers were still helping students learn and cope with the trauma of the natural disaster.
“In the face of devastation,” she recalled, “I saw the strength of the human spirit—that’s what educators do. Schools are the safe haven where students find counsel, purpose and friendship.”
As the discussion continued, four other AFT leaders offered observations on how school reopening is being addressed in their states and cities. They were Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers; Philippe Abraham, secretary-treasurer of New York State United Teachers; and Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association.
In Philadelphia, Jordan said, the long-term underfunding of public schools has had a profound negative impact. The current situation has been made even more difficult, he said, by the three crises facing the nation and his city: the coronavirus pandemic, the economic recession and the systemic racism that undermines Black and brown students everywhere.
“Our teachers are miracle workers,” Jordan said. “Our members have concerns, but we want to be back in classrooms.” Meanwhile, he added, Trump has revealed again that he has an “absolute disregard for science and, quite frankly, humanity.” The fundamental truth that should guide plans to reopen schools, he said, is that “lives are at stake.”
Cropper said Ohio educators have been working for months on how to reopen schools—with an “absence of guidance from the federal level.” The AFT’s reopening guidelines and safety checklists have been central to planning in Ohio, she said.
“The last few days have terrified our members,” Cropper said, citing suggestions by Trump that CDC safety recommendations should be weakened so schools can more easily meet them and reopen. “Teachers may be miracle workers,” she said, “but they can’t bring someone back to life.”
Abraham noted the lack of funding with which schools are grappling as they try to reopen. The effects of 2008’s Great Recession were still lingering when the pandemic hit, he said. Now budgets are being cut all over the country. “We need the resources that the HEROES Act would provide,” he added, referring to the emergency aid to state and local governments and schools that was passed by the House, but has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate.
When Trump says it is too expensive to comply with science-based safety guidelines, Abraham said, the only proper response is: “How much is a life worth?”
Florida has become the new epicenter of the pandemic, Ingram said, noting that on the day of the roundtable event 120 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in his state. Nevertheless, Florida’s governor is moving to “open our schools, no matter what.”
That approach is driven by politics, not science, Ingram said. “We’re simply asking for the things that public health experts say are necessary.”
Roundtable participants also answered some questions sent in by AFT members across the country. Stacy Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union asked how school communities can be fully resourced in these times of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter to address the needs of Black and Latinx students and community members.
Jill Biden said, “Racial inequities have to be addressed.” As the nation recovers and is able to move on from the pandemic, “we have to build back better.”
Jeff Whittle and Donna Jackson, both PSRP members in Michigan, asked how school support staff—from bus drivers and office workers to food service workers and custodians—can be supported and kept safe as schools reopen.
Warren said, “This is a matter of respect. That’s why it’s so important that everyone—not just teachers, but all staff—have a voice and a seat at the table.”
As the discussion concluded, Weingarten gave voice to a thought shared by all of those participating. “We wish Joe Biden was president now, because we so need a partner in the White House.”
Jill Biden and Warren echoed that view. “Everyone has got to vote, so that this country can go in a new direction,” Biden said.
Warren’s advice: “When you feel frustrated, do something—one thing every day—to make change, to make sure we have a new president.”