WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten delivered a landmark address Thursday outlining her vision to reopen schools, help students recover, and reimagine public education as the country emerges from the COVID-19 crisis.
Amid a polarized national education debate and lingering fears among parents over school safety, the leader of the 1.7 million-member union backed the Biden administration’s deployment of billions in federal resources for full five-days-a-week reopening of schools and launched an unprecedented $5 million “Back-to-School for Everyone” campaign to realize it.
In the speech, “Return, Recover and Reimagine: Toward a Renaissance in America’s Public Schools,” delivered live from AFT headquarters, Weingarten spelled out the steps necessary to return safely to full in-person learning and build the support systems to help students socially, emotionally and academically.
“There is no doubt: Schools must be open. In person. Five days a week. With the space and facilities to do so,” she said. “We know that’s how kids learn best and that prolonged isolation is harmful.”
“Educators have yearned to be back in school, with their students. They only asked for two things—a safe workplace during this pandemic and the resources they and their students need to succeed.”
She said, “The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in.”
Weingarten argued that “we must do far more than physically return to schools, as important as that is to create the normalcy we crave.” We also need to need to recover and reimagine with an eye to a renaissance in public education.
“We must put in place the supports to help students recover—socially, emotionally and academically. And we must reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passion, builds confidence, nurtures critical thinking and brings learning to life—so all children have access to the opportunities that give them the freedom to thrive.”
In doing so, Weingarten said, “we can seed a renaissance in America’s public schools that will change young people’s lives and change the course of our country.”
Weingarten said that the AFT’s members have gone above and beyond during the pandemic to engage their kids remotely during a year of turmoil.
“This pandemic has also underscored how important educators are. Teachers scrambled to redesign lessons and projects, and to create virtual field trips and labs to keep kids engaged and learning from afar. School food workers kept meals coming, often feeding anyone in the community who needed it. Many school bus drivers delivered those meals, along with schoolwork and internet hotspots so students could learn from home.”
The game-changer for many has been the vaccine, she pointed out.
“I hear it in educators’ voices and see it in our polling results. The fear that they will bring the virus home decreases the moment they get their shot. Our members have stepped up—according to our data, 89 percent of our members are fully vaccinated or want to be. And it’s really good news that just this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.”
Weingarten laid out 10 ideas, backed by real-world models, to match rhetoric with reality and fulfill the speech’s practical promise. The plan was backed by a formal resolution, passed by the AFT’s executive council on Wednesday afternoon.
1. Launch a $5 million “Back to School for Everyone” national campaign to connect not just with teachers and school staff but also with families and communities to communicate the importance of in-school learning and build families’ trust and confidence in children returning to school.
2. Form school-based committees of staff, parents and, where appropriate, students to plan for and respond to safety issues and to conduct safety “walk-throughs” in school buildings.
3. Align health and pedagogical best practices by reducing class sizes to reflect the CDC’s 3-feet social distancing guidance. Eliminate simultaneous in-person and remote instruction.
4. Designate “office hours” and clinics for AFT affiliates and others to call in to discuss ideas and get technical support.
5. Roll out recovery programs this summer that provide academic support, help students get back into routines and offer lots of ways for kids to have fun.
6. Promote community schools to build trust and remove obstacles to getting kids and families the support and services they need.
7. Increase the emphasis on civics, science and project-based learning, to nurture critical thinking and bring learning to life.
8. Commit funds from the American Rescue Plan to fill shortages of teachers, school counselors, psychologists and nurses.
9. Encourage Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to form a task force to rethink how we assess student learning and how to measure what really counts.
10. Engage stakeholders—families, educators and community partners—to ensure funds in the American Rescue Plan and other federal funds for schools are spent equitably and effectively.
The union published fresh polling Wednesday showing that showed the last remaining piece of the schools reopening puzzle—a lingering lack of trust among parents in communities hit hard by COVID-19—can be overcome if states and districts adopt the safety guardrails recommended by the AFT.
Weingarten concluded on a determined, optimistic note. “I truly believe we have a rare chance to seed a renaissance in American public education—a time of a flowering in culture and learning as in the Harlem Renaissance and the European Renaissance. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to reopen and recover, but to reimagine our schools in a way that makes every public school a place where parents want to send their children, educators and support staff want to work and students thrive. This is our moment.”
The full speech is available here.