Weingarten shares vision for safe, welcoming school year

AFT President Randi Weingarten welcomed thousands of educators to TEACH today with a full-throated push to reopen schools for in-person learning this fall. She rallied members after a year of uncertainty, honoring them for their dedication during the pandemic and offering visions for community schools with wraparound services and for project-based learning. She announced AFT initiatives in literacy and civics that will spark kids’ passion for learning, and she stressed the importance of teaching critical thinking and accurate history.

Randi keynote at TEACH

Weingarten praised educators for finding ways to overcome obstacles since the pandemic took hold in March 2020. “How many times this past school year did you think, ‘I cant keep doing this?’ Yet you did,” she said, sending shoutouts to members across the nation who provided not only remote and in-person instruction, but social and emotional support. 

Teachers and staff have been a lifeline for children during this difficult time, Weingarten said, and yet that responsibility has taken a toll. A recent survey finds that 78 percent of teachers reported experiencing frequent job-related stress—almost twice as many as most other working adults during the pandemic. 

It is essential for people who care for others to take care of themselves, Weingarten said, which is why the AFT offers a free mental health benefit for members to access trauma counseling. This year’s TEACH devotes a whole strand to educator well-being, she added, and Share My Lesson has resources to help educators adapt to change and manage stress. 

Taking care of each other

Educators have just been through the second-most challenging year of their professional lives, Weingarten asserted. The most challenging year lies ahead. 

“Your students will return with enormous needs,” she said. “There still won’t be enough school counselors, psychologists or nurses. Far too many schools still need ventilation system overhauls and other infrastructure improvements. And while there’s not enough political will to lower class sizes, there will be enormous pressure to make up for lost time.”

School is not just where kids learn academics; it’s where they build relationships, she said. Many children who otherwise might go hungry eat breakfast and lunch at school. Schools are centers of their communities. 

At the same time, unions have always prioritized safety. That’s why the AFT released a plan for reopening schools in April 2020, developed with health and education experts, and with input from members. As COVID-19 knowledge grew, our plan evolved with the science. “Creating safe conditions in schools during a public health crisis is not an obstacle to reopening classrooms; it is the pathway to going back,” Weingarten said.

Members have told us this repeatedly over the past 16 months. Three-quarters of our education members said in June 2020 how important it was for kids to be in school and that they wanted to be back in their classrooms with the right safety measures. Even more members, 80 percent, said so this past February. Now, with 9 of 10 AFT members having been vaccinated, we can be even more confident about returning to school in person this fall. 

What it will take

Schools can reopen this fall in person, five days a week, with mitigation measures, ventilation upgrades, and social, emotional and academic supports for students, Weingarten said. That requires resources, and it’s why every day since the start of the pandemic, the AFT has fought in Washington for federal funding for schools. Our union also has fought for COVID-19 relief packages for families, for healthcare providers, to keep state and local governments afloat, and to keep educators and other public employees from losing their jobs. 

Thankfully, the Biden administration changed course from the previous administration’s “strategy” of tweeting about reopening. Nearly every school system is planning for full reopening this fall, and many are offering summer programs for academic recovery and fun. 

The COVID-19 relief funds that President Joe Biden delivered have been life-changing. Last month, Weingarten said, she visited Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus in New York City with United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. Throughout her years at the UFT, she said, the union fought to get the ventilation system at MLK fixed. Finally, with funding from the CARES Act, help from experts and a big push from Mulgrew, the city has fixed it and everyone at MLK is breathing easier.

Last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced a stakeholder advisory committee that will help the district decide how to spend about $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The committee includes representatives of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. 

Despite this progress, some families still have reservations about sending their children back to school. If the bathrooms at their child’s school lacked soap before the pandemic or the ventilation was poor, those are even greater concerns now—until families see that the situation has changed. 

Back to School for All

Every year, the AFT does a back-to-school campaign. This year, our union is ramping up those efforts, dedicating $5 million to a Back to School for All campaign, with members reaching out to families and communities about the value of children returning to school in person. Since the middle of May, the AFT has made 40 grants to state and local unions totaling more than $2.5 million, covering 1,400 AFT local unions in 22 states. 

First and foremost, Weingarten explained, schools must be safe and welcoming. They must be free of violence, pollutants and COVID-19. They also must be free of racism and intolerance. “Every school should be a place where parents want to send their children,” she said, “where educators want to work and where our kids thrive.”

There are several statewide back-to-school campaigns already—in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York—and in many local affiliates, big and small. Members are going door-to-door, visiting students’ homes to talk about health, safety and education, and to encourage families to send their children back for in-person learning. 

The Chicago Teachers Union’s summer organizing campaign is centered around increasing vaccination rates, promoting social-emotional school resources, and lobbying for more federal money to be devoted to communities highly impacted by the pandemic.

In Houston, a 12-member community canvassing team will target the city’s chronically under-resourced neighborhoods where student absences have been the highest. The Houston Federation of Teachers and the Houston Education Support Personnel aim not only to encourage families to return to school, but to join the fight for community schools.

Freedom to thrive

Weingarten said teachers need the supports to help students recover. This is an opportunity to reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passion, nurtures critical thinking and brings learning to life.

Because there was an epidemic of anxiety and depression among young people even before COVID-19, Weingarten expressed gratitude to President Joe Biden for securing funds to increase the number of school counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers and other school health professionals.

And she called for expanding community schools everywhere. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education voted to increase the number of community schools in the district to 70 over the next three years. Many more students and families could benefit from this wraparound support, and that’s why the AFT is calling for 25,000 community schools by 2025. 

There is a lot of concern about learning loss,” but this deficit mindset disregards what students have learned this year. It assumes there wont be any efforts to help students recover or that those efforts will be insufficient. And it ignores all that educators have done—working past the point of exhaustion the last 16 months.

Weingarten said she’s concerned that these fears could lead some officials to double down on standardized testing, so the AFT is calling on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to form a task force to rethink how we address both assessment and accountability, which can dampen students’ love of learning.

Weingarten reminded members of the value of project-based learning. She pointed to career and technical education as an example of project-based instruction, noting that 95 percent of students in these programs graduate from high school, about 10 percentage points higher than the national average. 

Students have surprised themselves by yearning to be back in school this year, Weingarten added, calling on schools to “stoke their excitement about learning with interesting projects and learning that’s important and worthwhile.”

Reimagining reading and civics

Weingarten called on Americans to take the rare opportunity to reimagine public schools in ways that will help all kids thrive. Reading, she said, is the key to unleashing students’ curiosity and to learning science, the arts, history and literature.

She said the AFT is redoubling its commitment to help members improve their instruction in literacy. AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus will lead this campaign as it rolls out over the next few months with an online hub of resources, a series of webinars and a member survey. 

Weingarten lifted up the need for students to learn how to act as citizens in a democracy. She said the AFT’s new Educating for Democratic Citizenship program aims to put powerful civics education tools directly into teachers’ hands. To start, 20 teacher fellows from three school districts—in Los Angeles County; Dearborn, Mich.; and New York City—will work in cohorts to produce materials centered around inquiry learning and action civics.

Being able to tell fact from fiction is crucial to being an informed citizen. And civic responsibility is essential right now, in light of widespread attacks on the right to vote and the serious threats to democracy. Weingarten said she has watched with alarm as these threats have proliferated and reached the highest levels of government—notably, the attack on the U.S. Capitol six months ago, on Jan. 6. “This was not tourism, as one congressman described it. This was terrorism,” Weingarten said.

In another attempt to suppress the truth, fearmongers are campaigning against critical race theory to distort the teaching of history in public schools, Weingarten said. In fact, critical race theory isn’t taught in K-12 schools—it’s taught in college and law school to analyze whether systemic racism exists. But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race as CRT, bullying teachers and trying tostop them from teaching facts. 

Weingarten was clear: “We teach history, not hate.” She vowed to defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history, noting that the AFT has a legal defense fund for this purpose. 

“Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong,” she said. “Distorting history and threatening educators for teaching the truth is what is truly radical and wrong.” 

Looking ahead, Weingarten said, “We win when we put hope over fear—when we seek the well-being not just of ourselves and the people we love, but of everyone in this country that we love.”

Students this fall will bear the scars of a struggle, she said, but AFT members will help them recover. Students also will bring their dreams, and educators will help them realize those dreams. 

“You are your students’ lifeline,” Weingarten told the teachers. “You make it possible to connect what they know and what they can do. The past 16 months have been incredibly difficult. I hope you know that what you have done and what you will do are vitally important, are essential, are critical.” 

[Annette Licitra]