Weingarten Sets Pandemic Record Straight as Republican Attacks Fall Flat
WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten delivered a stirring defense of the nation’s educators at a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, debunking myths and hailing efforts to help kids and safely reopen schools amid a once-in-a-century pandemic.
In oral testimony, Weingarten, on behalf of the 1.7 million members of the AFT, highlighted the steps teachers and their union took to keep kids safe during COVID-19 and their ongoing work to support them socially, emotionally and academically.
“From the earliest days of COVID, the AFT knew that safety was the pathway to opening schools and keeping them open,” Weingarten told the committee. “We know that kids learn best in person, so opening schools safely—even as the pandemic surged—guided the AFT’s every action.”
The AFT was one of the first groups to release a detailed schools reopening plan in April 2020, and it advocated relentlessly to safely reopen schools for in-person learning.
Weingarten welcomed the subcommittee’s focus on kids’ learning. But instead of attacking teachers and vulnerable students, dwelling on politics and elevating culture wars, she urged lawmakers to focus on concrete solutions to help kids recover and thrive.
“Our priorities were to open schools safely; keep students, staff and families safe; focus on students’ social, emotional and academic well-being; and secure the resources to do all this.”
More than 1.1 million Americans have died of COVID-19, Weingarten noted, and Black children died at almost three times the rate of white children. At least 245,000 children in the United States have been orphaned. Thousands of AFT members were among the sick and the dead.
Weingarten debunked false claims about the union’s routine consultation—alongside more than 50 other groups—with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February 2021.
“We—along with parents, administrators and health officials—needed clear, science-based guidance to keep students and staff safe in school,” she told the committee. “It made sense to consult with the CDC. And it was not only appropriate for the CDC to confer with educators, it would be irresponsible not to.”
That guidance, as well as the American Rescue Plan and the work done by governors, education officials, parents, educators and their unions, formed the pathway for schools to reopen: the nation went from 46 percent of schools were open for in-person instruction in January 2021 compared with close to 97 percent by May 2021.
Throughout the pandemic, teachers consistently expressed a preference for in-person learning, because they knew that remote instruction was only ever a supplement, not a substitute, for face-to-face instruction. The AFT was laser focused on the guardrails needed to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms, and Weingarten was one of the first education leaders to push for summer school to combat learning loss in an April 2020 op-ed with former U.S. Education Secretary John King.
“We spent $5 million on a nationwide back-to-school campaign to support everything from developing reopening plans, back-to-school fairs, door-to-door visits with parents and kids to encourage families to return to in-person learning. We were fighting for better ventilation. For COVID testing. For the tools we needed.”
The same was true for parents, Weingarten testified. Polls in the first year of the pandemic showed that parents wanted safety measures in place and polls today show that a large majority of parents believe schools acted appropriately in pivoting to remote and hybrid learning and back to in-person.
“Teachers want what students need. Let’s work together to help kids recover and leap ahead academically, physically and emotionally,” Weingarten concluded. We can do it … by expanding community schools that help kids and support families … [and] with more experiential learning and career-connected learning that is really engaging for kids. Help us address educator burnout and shortages. Together, we can overcome the effects of this unprecedented pandemic.”
Weingarten’s full submitted testimony can be read here.
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The AFT represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.