As students and staff head back to school, AFT activists gathered Monday evening, Aug. 23, for a telephone town hall with AFT President Randi Weingarten.
Teachers have done everything society has asked of them to contend with the pandemic, Weingarten said, but between the resurgence of COVID-19 and other disasters like wildfires in the West, flooding in Tennessee and yet another massive earthquake in Haiti, “it feels sometimes like we go from plague to plague.”
In the midst of all this, students and staff are returning to school with joy, excitement and safety measures. Weingarten has been crisscrossing the country as part of the AFT’s Back to School for All campaign. Since hitting the road at the beginning of August, she has visited more than 20 cities. A lot of what she does is listening: to school staff, to parents and to kids.
The AFT is dedicating $5 million in grants to affiliates as a way to help them prepare for a safe back-to-school transition. Our members are talking to parents about the importance of in-person learning and reaching out to students who missed school most or all of last year. To date, the AFT has made grants totaling $4.9 million in 29 states, covering more than 20 million students.
Safety is the watchword. So far, 90 percent of our teachers are vaccinated, with more having had their first shot. Weingarten introduced AFT leaders from local affiliates around the country who described their own back-to-school efforts.
In California, CFT President Jeff Freitas has been visiting schools throughout the state, dropping in on new-teacher orientations, early childhood centers and community colleges, each with their own policies and issues. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, the AFT vice president visited community schools where the state has infused new funding. In Gilroy, he visited with classified employees, “very much the backbone of our schools,” who were preparing schools to open safely. Everywhere, there were shortages of teachers and support staff from custodians to cafeteria workers. In some places, like Culver City, school districts have gone beyond state guidelines and mandated vaccines for students and staff. “Safety is our priority,” Freitas said, “and if we focus on our safety, we can keep our schools open.”
In New York, Melinda Person is executive director of the New York State United Teachers. She described how NYSUT is using its back-to-school grants in three ways: as stipends for parents to help other parents prepare their kids for a return to in-person learning; as organizing programs that have so far knocked on 10,000 doors to discuss safety and provide accurate information on vaccines; and as a parent survey. More than 80 percent of parents polled feel comfortable sending their kids back. “Parents inherently knew what we know,” Person said, “that in-person learning is critically important.”
Also in New York, the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York, has trained more than 200 members to be “safety watchdogs” who conduct walk-throughs of campus buildings. Among the PSC’s concerns are under-enrolled classes, which may be canceled, and under-vaccinated students. To encourage students to take vaccines, the union is holding raffles of vital supplies throughout the fall. “It’s just so, so challenging for students for whom things already are challenging,” said Andrea Vásquez, first vice president of the PSC.
In Texas, Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, a longtime special education teacher, described a winter that included a broken power grid, soaring rates of COVID-19 and more than 10,000 students who vanished from school. The HFT has knocked on nearly 8,600 doors and is phone-banking with a clear message: “Teachers and staff are ready to go back to work, and we’re in this together.”
Kesler Camese-Jones is a former English language arts teacher. As president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers—one of only three affiliates in Louisiana with collective bargaining—she is determined to make schools minimally safe “before anybody sets foot in those buildings.”
The JFT sponsored a fun event called “Safe Journey Back to School.” Participants use a bus ticket to enter and follow a bus route. Stops include a chat with healthcare providers to dispel myths about vaccines, as well as stops for school supplies and personal protective equipment. Door prizes are announced every 15 minutes.
Shari Obrenski wryly notes that she was sworn in as president of the Cleveland Teachers Union during “a very quiet time in the world of education—April 16, 2020.” The union in northeastern Ohio crafted a project aimed at making sure that thousands of at-risk students will return to school this fall.
Through phone-banking, door-knocking and attending community events, the CTU is finding those kids. In the first four weeks of the program, the union brought back 2,700 students, Obrenski said, “and we are not finished.” She also credited a good relationship with the school district, which is running TV ads.
Weingarten found the leaders’ accounts inspiring. “This is the way we make change,” she said.
During a Q&A session, three local leaders from conservative parts of the country—Kentucky, Utah and southern Illinois—described pitched battles over mask and vaccine mandates.
Weingarten promised the leaders assistance from the AFT and offered a hotline for help in dealing with vaccine hesitancy: 202-393-6958.
“You’re part of a big union,” she said. “We value you, and frankly, so do most parents. I want you to see that the adage ‘Together we can accomplish what none of us can do alone’ works just as well in Utah as it does in other places.”
Weingarten thanked the participants, wishing them a safe and successful return to school. “Please mask and vax,” she said. “It’s the two things we can do to keep our kids and families safe.”
She also offered a heads-up about an AFT Facebook Live Town Hall planned for this coming Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 6:45 Eastern time. Members will discuss the coming school year—from staying healthy to managing stress—with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, Nathan Monell of the National PTA, Dan Domenech of AASA/The School Superintendents Association, Dr. Pamela Cantor of Turnaround for Children and Dr. Samira Brown of Little Lives PPE.