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Reopening schools during the pandemic is proving to be a complex assignment

As the pandemic drags on, the toll taken on students and teachers, while trying to protect them from infection, has become one of the outbreak's most vexing and intractable challenges. Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the pandemic drags on, the toll taken on students and teachers, while trying to protect them from infection, has become one of the outbreak's most vexing and intractable challenges.

    As Stephanie Sy reports, serving the interests of everyone involved, students, teachers, parents and others has proven to be a complex assignment.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Delays and deadlock in Chicago, as the city and its teachers union battle over plans to reopen public schools, in the middle of it, 60,000 K-8 students who were supposed to return to in person learning on Monday for the first time since last March.

    Yesterday, the union threatened to go on strike over safety and staffing concerns. But, today, negotiations continue. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says roughly $100 million have been spent on improving safety protocols and infrastructure at schools.

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot:

    These investments have gone into health screenings, temporary — temperature checks at schools, provisions of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, face coverings, PPE, regular cleaning, disinfecting protocols and social distancing.

    With this in mind, I want to reiterate, our schools are safe.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But the union says teachers are having a hard time getting the vaccine.

  • Thaddeus Goodchild:

    Teachers are being left to run around to try to make their own appointments at pharmacies to get vaccinated, like some sort of bizarre Hunger Games situation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The CDC has said the risk of school transmission appears low when proper safety measures, like mask wearing, are enforced.

    But both teachers and parents still worry. Even when Chicago Public Schools reopened some preschool and special ed classrooms earlier this month, only a fraction of the students eligible to return chose to do so.

    It's a dilemma playing out in districts around the country. An analysis of about 1,200 school districts has found roughly 35 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in schools offering in person learning, while 23 percent are at schools with a mix of virtual and in person instruction.

    The biggest share of students, 42 percent, remain at schools with only online classes. Besides Chicago, large school districts in places like Los Angeles, Clark County, Nevada, and Philadelphia, are clashing with powerful unions.

    And in New York City, the nation's largest school system, classrooms have opened and closed depending on COVID surges, adding to uncertainty. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Biden has said he wants to reopen most K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office.

    Joining me now is Becky Pringle. She is the president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

    Becky, thank you so much for joining us.

    These showdowns between districts and teachers unions, what are they really about, in your view?

  • Becky Pringle:

    One of the things that I continue to hear from educators all over this country is an expression of what I know, as a teacher for over 30 years — I taught science, Stephanie, the wonder years.

    And I know how much educators want to be in person, in classrooms with their students. They understand how important that is, and it's — how hard it is to teach and work with them virtually. All we're asking for is for the federal government to provide the resources we need, so we can reopen our schools, not only safely, but equitably.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What specific resources are you referring to, Becky, because there are a lot of essential workers that have, throughout the pandemic, had to continue working, facing some degree of risk, even with mitigation measures?

    How are teachers different?

  • Becky Pringle:

    Stephanie, when I talk about the reopening of in person learning of schools, I'm not only talking about teachers and all of the other people who work in our public schools. I'm talking about students. I'm talking about students' families.

    I'm talking about educators' families. We're talking about all of those people.

    And what we are looking toward is the science. I told you I was a science teacher. We're looking at the science, listening to the experts. And even the CDC, which a lot of people talk about and quote when they talk about reopening the schools, they say, yes, we can reopen our schools safely, if the mitigation strategies are strictly enforced.

    They mean that we have to have PPE, we have to have face masks, we have to have the opportunity, the ability to socially distance, and clean our schools, and have proper ventilation.

    We also, Stephanie, have to have a plan in place for not if, but when one of our students or one of our educators falls victim to COVID-19.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes, Becky, when you talk about the funding, President Biden has said that he wants to give schools $130 billion to help them reopen, and he wants them to reopen, at least most of them, by April.

    How realistic is that timeline, especially because you have some teachers unions that are saying they don't even believe their teachers are going to feel safe to go back to school in the fall?

  • Becky Pringle:

    You know, Stephanie, educators all over this country worked really, really hard to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our president and our vice president. And we did that because they made a commitment.

    They made a commitment to prioritize getting the coronavirus under control. They made a commitment to investing in our state and local governments. They made a commitment, because he understands that, as he listens to his experts, the director at the CDC, to Dr. Fauci and others, they know that, even with vaccines, we have to continue to provide our schools with the resources they need for all of those other mitigation strategies.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Becky, I know you have also focused on inequity in schools.

    And one thing that we have learned is that virtual learning is exacerbating those inequities along racial and socioeconomic lines. So, can you talk to the urgency about getting kids back in person from that lens?

  • Becky Pringle:

    Stephanie, there's no question that our Black and brown and indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and all of the crises that it's spawned.

    It is absolutely session that, as we think about the resources that we need to put into our schools and our communities, that we address these inequities, not only as it relates to the pandemic, but as it relates to the economic crisis that we're facing, the health care crisis.

    All of those things determine whether our students can learn. We absolutely must invest in our students, all of them, but especially those that have been impacted the most.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The pandemic has highlighted so much, Becky, including the importance of our nation's educators.

    Becky Pringle with the National Education Association, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Becky Pringle:

    Thank you, Stephanie. It's so good to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, tomorrow night, we will hear a different perspective, making the case for in person classes and the consequences of keeping schools closed longer.

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