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The safety concerns for teachers before schools reopen

The largest teacher’s union in the U.S., the American Federation of Teachers, announced recently it would support any local chapters that strike due to their school’s reopening without any safety measures. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, spoke with Hari Sreenivasan about safety concerns for teachers and what should be done about them.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 1.5 million teachers in the U.S. are at greater risk of serious illness due to COVID-19.

    Recently, the American Federation of Teachers—the country's largest teachers' union—announced that it would support any local chapters that strike due to their schools reopening without proper safety measures.

    Two weeks ago, I spoke with the union's president, Randi Weingarten, for our sister program, Amanpour and Company. Here's an unaired portion of that interview where Weingarten addresses school safety concerns and what must be done to make teachers feel comfortable returning to the classroom.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, at what point would you advise your union members not to go into school buildings to continue to teach, but from home?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    So look, most of the districts that we're working with are starting are coming up with really smart strategies because we're working on the front end to try to assure that schools or, or education is both safe and we're meeting the needs of kids. If there are districts that are jeopardizing the health and safety of children and of teachers in defiance of what parents want, in defiance of what teachers want, um, then nothing is off the table, but right now we're still trying to get it right.

    And so, you know, that's why we've been, you know, very much focused on how do we engage parents and teachers in these conversations? How do we follow the science, first in terms of community spread, spacing, resources, and, and how do we get the resources? As school districts get closer and closer to starting date, nothing will be off the table except one North Star, which is, let's make sure we are not jeopardizing the health and safety of children and of educators.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Do you have an idea of how many of your members would fall into the high-risk categories?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Yes. About—Kaiser Family Foundation actually projected that is about 25%. Twenty percent of teachers are over 55. We know that about 30% of principals are over 55, but, you know, we know just like the rest of the population, you know, lots of people have preexisting conditions.

    The polling results that we got back that said, if it's safe, if we have these, you know, physical distancing and masks and cleaning and ventilation with a reasonable accommodation for those who need it, 76% of my members said, "Yep, I want to make a difference in the lives of children. I know that it's in school, it's better than remote, and I'd be comfortable in that circumstance."

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There's physically not enough room, not enough room inside a classroom for all say, 20 kids or 25 kids to be in the same space at the same time. How do you get to that social distancing and then, you know, look, most parents are also going to say, good luck keeping three five-year-olds apart.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    We learned that if you create the routines, as only teachers can do. You create routines about physical distancing. You create routines about all this, it can work, but again, we cannot pit safety issues that we know have been successful in, um, in mitigating and preventing the spread of virus—you cannot pit safety issues against education issues. It is a false choice. We need to deal with both.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So finally, when does this end? I mean, we have epidemiologists saying that this virus will become endemic. It will be like influenza. It will circulate through the human population over time. How do we prepare for this? How do we make sure that teachers and students and everyone else has the confidence to walk back into school buildings?

  • Randi Weingarten:

    So, you know, I think that trust, um, and science are going to be key, we're going to need to lift up examples of where it's safe. We're going to have to share that. We're going to need to, to hope that the scientists get to a vaccine as quickly as possible.

    There's lots of things that we can do in terms of reimagining our health system, our public health system, what education needs to be, um, to, to meet the needs of, of, of individual children. So many people during this period of time, have ensured that the country has been fed. The country has been protected. The country has been engaged. And so one of the things that I, in—in moments of darkness that I really rely on is the essential, good of working people in America. They want America to work.

    And I think that they are the ones who, if we do this step by step with safety, very much, he, in our mind embedded in our mind, then we can see a way of moving through this crisis and reaching and meeting the needs of our kids, as we must do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Randi Weingarten:

    Thank you.

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