As an adjunct professor at a New York City college, I will be teaching remotely for the upcoming fall semester. It’s not the way I, or anyone else, prefers to interact with students, but I’m grateful that at least I will be reaching them on some meaningful level. I have it easy compared to millions of other teachers and students who are stuck in a state of limbo, worry and confusion just as the back-to-school season gets underway. This pandemic, and the lack of federal support, has created havoc and disarray for our education system.
Perhaps no one in the U.S. is more sympathetic to the plight of teachers and students during this pandemic than Randi Weingarten, who for 12 years has been the president of the American Federation of Teachers and its 1.7 million members. If you didn’t know, she is the first openly gay individual to be elected president of a national American labor union.
Nothing in her extensive career could have prepared her for the raging debate across the country as to whether teachers – and students – should return to the classroom this fall. As one can imagine, Weingarten admits that things are just “crazy” right now.
During a conversation on Tuesday, I asked her why things seemed so unclear right at this moment, and how schools are able finalize comprehensive reopening plans, at such a late date and when Congress and the administration have failed to provide adequate funding to make schools safe.
“The entire country should have been focused earlier on making schools safe to reopen,” Weingarten said. “And, for schools to reopen safely, it will take an unprecedented amount of funding and everyone working together to make this happen. And that’s not happening right now during this critical time.”
Weingarten and her union released its first school reopening plan in April, weeks before the original Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. “Our members have worked nonstop since February to protect students, educators, health care workers and our communities. Those actions have included work on countless reopening committees, negotiations with local leaders, advocacy at home and in the Congress, and litigation.”
Weingarten explained that three thresholds should be met to allow children to return safely. “First, community spread needs to be tackled. Second, safety guardrails need to be put in place in the buildings, and the third is funding has to be provided to imbed the safety guardrails. You need money to make this all happen.”
“Ultimately none of those three things are occurring,” Weingarten continued. “California and Texas understood the obligation to the safety of their communities, and those governors delayed in-person school openings for several weeks. And then you have Florida that is just in total denial. On top of all of this, President Trump is creating chaos.”
I asked her about his continued insistence on opening schools, including his tweet Monday night that simply said, “Open the Schools!!!” Isn’t he making it dangerous and more confusing for parents and teachers?
“He has accomplished nothing,” she answered emphatically. “He has mishandled the coronavirus from the beginning, and now he wants to create chaos with children’s lives, and that’s what he’s done, and it’s unconscionable.”
“If you juxtapose Trump’s tweet with what happened in Israel, then you see how what Trump is demanding is completely wrong.”
According to a Tuesday New York Times story, “…confident it had beaten the coronavirus and desperate to reboot a devastated economy, the Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May.” According to the article, this resulted in hundreds of schools closing and tens of thousands of students and teachers quarantined.
“[The other countries] definitely should not do what we have done,” said Eli Waxman, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science and chairman of the team advising Israel’s National Security Council on the pandemic. “It was a major failure.”
“This push to open schools is guaranteed to fail,” echoed Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and molecular virologist, and the dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine said in a story in The Atlantic on Monday.
“What Trump wants would be a complete failure,” agreed Weingarten. “For Trump to get what he wants, totally reopening schools, even in places that don’t have community spread, it will require $5-6 billion, 50 percent more teachers and 50 percent more space. None of which is happening or will ever happen. But Trump doesn’t really care because he has no sense of reality or any empathy. Except that his son’s school will do remote learning this fall, so that’s the only exception for him.“
When I asked Weingarten if the Trump administration’s Department of Education, led by Betsy DeVos, had offered any help, advice or guidelines, she was quick with a reply. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The only thing DeVos did was try to take a $1 billion of the $13 billion in school funding from the C.A.R.E.S. (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) act and give it to private schools.”
“She and Trump created this bedlam,” Weingarten went on. “DeVos has no plan, and they have offered no resources. All the administration is doing is to basically try and create division, because they are eager for some economic recovery and that involves opening schools and child care, so parents can go to work. Meanwhile, people are losing jobs, and he and the Republicans won’t even extend the unemployment benefits. Trump and DeVos have no understanding about working people, and no concern for the safety of the children. They see working people as pawns in whatever political aspirations they have.”
To that end, I asked Weingarten what she thought the landscape would look like in November, at election time. “More and more schools will be on hybrid models of remote and in-school, or strictly remote. I don’t see how anyone can fully reopen unless they have hired more teachers and have created lots of extra space for social distancing.”
“But I’m hopeful that by November, we will have a lot more professional development about how to do remote learning, and hybrid, and in an effective way for the students.”
But for now, Weingarten is keyed in on what will happen through the rest of this month and next. “I’m very focused on trying to make everything safe and meaningful for the kids and their teachers, and making sure that if schools open, they do so with safety guardrails and adequate funding.”
John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.