Warren, Shalala discuss aid and reopening schools on AFT town hall

On the eve of the announcement of the American Federation of Teachers’ guidelines for how to reopen U.S. public schools, more than 30,000 AFT members joined President Randi Weingarten for a telephone town hall discussion of next steps in the coronavirus crisis.


man in protective gear greets car at coronavirus testing site
Benjamin Clapp / Alamy Stock Photo

As she introduced her guests on the April 28 call—Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida—Weingarten noted that it was Workers Memorial Day. “Close to 100 AFT members are among those who have died from COVID-19,” she said. “Over 20 percent of healthcare workers in America have been made sick simply by doing their jobs.”

Earlier that day AFT affiliates in 10 different states filed 40 complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration aimed at forcing OSHA to do its job: keep workers safe.

Absolutely essential to doing that—and to successfully and safely reopening schools in the coming months—Weingarten, Warren and Shalala agreed, is Congress’ inclusion of adequate financial aid to state and local governments in the next crisis-related legislative package currently taking shape in Washington.

Warren said she is fighting to make sure two important elements will be part of federal policy. First, she said, Congress must approve an Essential Workers Bill of Rights that addresses health and safety on the job, sick and family leave, health coverage for those who get sick, and job protections for anyone who speaks out about hazards. And second, noting that a national financial crisis is “lurking half a step behind the coronavirus pandemic,” Warren called for some form of student debt cancellation in the next round of legislation. Students never fully recovered from the 2008 Great Recession, she said. “We should cancel student loan debt to stimulate our economy.”

National policies, Warren said, should boost the economy “not from the treetops down, but from the grass-roots up.” Student loan debt cancellation would put money in the pockets of millions of Americans—money they would be able to spend to support the recovery of their local economies.

In the House of Representatives, Shalala is a lead sponsor of the Reopen America Act, which looks at what the role of the federal government should be. Such legislation is essential, she said, because in President Trump “we have an erratic leader who is anti-science—he is dangerous to our health.”

Shalala’s proposal would make the federal government the purchaser of medical and protective equipment. The military is already expert at purchasing, she said, so we should use their expertise. Governors should develop their own science-based plans for reopening. “Then Congress must fund those plans,” she said.

During the call, Weingarten gave a basic outline of the AFT’s guidelines for reopening public schools. That plan was released on April 29, the day after the town hall. In addition to continued use of public health tools, and stepped-up testing and contact tracking, she said, we must be “educating, engaging and empowering workers to do the things that safety requires” when schools reopen.

Key to making that possible, Weingarten said, is financial aid to state and local authorities that will enable them to implement their plans for schools. “We must not forfeit America’s future,” she said.

Weingarten, Warren and Shalala all rejected recent statements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said states could just declare bankruptcy as revenues collapse.

“The notion of state bankruptcy is aimed at people in public service,” Warren said. She speculated that McConnell and other Republicans are just looking for a way to allow state and local governments to abandon their existing long-term worker pension obligations. “Republicans are willing to use this crisis to make things worse,” she said. “But people across the nation have really begun to see the importance of a functioning government”—at all levels.

“The last thing you want in a crisis,” she added, “is to lay off state and local workers. This is about making this a country that works for everyone.”

Questions from AFT members ranged from upcoming elections to what schools and classrooms might look like when educators and students return.

One questioner wanted to know: If classes must be much smaller and taught in shifts, where will all the needed teachers come from? School days may be staggered, and we just may not have as much instructional time as before, Weingarten said. “My concern is that we will see well-meaning—but dumb—ideas being proposed,” she said. So we have to make sure AFT members are at the table when reopening plans are discussed, she added.

Shalala said school plans also must take into account what happens when parents return to work. If children are in school only every other day, she said, employers may have to make some adjustments to accommodate workers’ child care needs.

With the pandemic prompting many states to expand voting by mail, another questioner asked what the role of the financially strapped U.S. Postal Service will be. The AFT has backed proposals to include aid for the Postal Service in the next crisis stimulus legislation. At election time in November, Warren said, “We could be in another health emergency.” So all levels of government should be making it easier to vote—not harder, she added. “Part of that approach has to be stabilizing the post office.”

“President Trump has failed us,” Weingarten said. “He didn’t create COVID-19, but he made it worse.” As people across the nation step up to fill that leadership gap, they should focus “not on all the obstacles in front of us, but on what our possibilities can be,” she said.

“We are grateful to all of our members who teach, care for, feed, save and engage those caught up in this crisis,” Weingarten said as the town hall concluded.