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Nation's 2nd-Largest Teachers Union Says It's Time For In-Person Learning

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The nation's second-largest teachers union says it's time to get back to school in person full time. The American Federation of Teachers is now on board with reopening classrooms this fall. That's a change from a few months ago, when the union and its local affiliates pushed back on efforts to reopen schools while COVID cases continued to rise. So I asked AFT President Randi Weingarten what changed and if she feels schools are safe now.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Yes, and I think that the game changer has really been the vaccines. And ultimately you are seeing all across America, there's - in my membership, about 89% of our members have either gotten the vaccines or want to get them. And they have seen for themselves a huge decrease not only in COVID transmission amongst adults but also that people are not getting as sick. And that's been a really big game changer, and I think it will be a big game changer for kids, as well.

MARTIN: What about the 11% who aren't vaccinated or who aren't planning on getting vaccinated?

WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, we're doing a lot of work to try and convince people that vaccines are the path for normalcy. And what we've also seen is that the safety conditions, the mitigation and all of these things have created the pathway to schools not only being safe but feeling safe. So there's a lot of trust, and there's a lot of joy for the people who have been back in school.

MARTIN: The CDC now says fully vaccinated people can go without masks, even indoors. Should that apply to teachers?

WEINGARTEN: Look. I think it should apply to teachers, but it's going to take us a minute to figure out how this works in schools because there will be a bunch of questions, including, does this mean that everybody in a class, you know, has to be vaccinated in order for you to do this? Does it mean that, you know, a teacher can take off a mask even if kids still have to wear their masks? So we need to just figure out some protocols for how this will work. But I think it sends a message that there's a real incentive to get vaccinated because when you get vaccinated, you can take your mask off. And, you know, you are really one giant step closer to normalcy.

MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit more about that elementary school age cohort? Because those kids don't have a vaccine available to them yet. They're still going to have to wear masks. They're still going to have to social distance to some degree. Have enough schools come up with the space to make full-time in-person learning possible, considering that?

WEINGARTEN: I am so glad you asked that question. I don't understand why we couldn't find a whole lot more space last September and October for, you know, us to do the physical distancing. But having said that, one of the things I suggested we outlined right now - the social distancing or physical distancing of 3 feet with class size. And I've watched schools do that now where if you put two desks face to face, you get to the 3 feet. And, you know, kids can actually look at each other and talk to each other, and they're still three feet physically distanced. In New York City, I have been told that they can accommodate 90% of kids right now with the 3 feet physical distancing. So let's find the space this summer to accommodate 100% of the kids. There's lots of different storefronts.

There's lots of different empty Catholic schools and other parochial schools that, you know, were on the chopping block, that were being sold. Let's see if we can use them for public education. Let's see if we can use storefronts for public education. Let's find the space. So we can use this moment to lower class size, particularly for elementary school students while we're waiting for them to be vaccinated. But also don't change it every 3 1/2 minutes next year. So let's just plan for it right now.

MARTIN: When you and I talked at the beginning of this year, you said you did not like the idea of mandating the vaccine for teachers. Do you still hold that position?

WEINGARTEN: Yes. Let me just say personally I'm a - as you can hear, I'm a big believer in vaccines, but I think we have to convince people that this is the right way to go, as opposed to mandating it right now, particularly in light of the fact that we're still under emergency-use authorization. I'm seeing more confidence in vaccines two or three months after they've been available than in the first minute that they were available.

MARTIN: What about school districts? And there are some that are keeping some kind of virtual learning option. They intend to do that in the fall, even. Do you think that's a good idea?

WEINGARTEN: You know, I'm mixed about it. In-person learning is so much better than virtual instruction that, you know, it is hard to argue for virtual instruction as an alternative. But we have a lot of parents who are still really skeptical about whether or not our schools are going to keep their kids safe. And it breaks down on racial lines, particularly because COVID so heavily impacted Black and brown parents. And, you know, and Black and brown and Asian parents are also concerned about whether we're going to keep their kids safe from bullying and racism and things like that.

So I think we have work to do this summer, which is one of the reasons why we are finding $5 million in additional funds from union coffers so that we can do, you know, not just our traditional back-to-school programs but a back-to-school program for everyone. It's about building trust and building confidence that school is a safe and welcoming place for our families.

MARTIN: Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Thank you so much.

WEINGARTEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "LAST PRACTICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.