Coronavirus Report

Coronavirus Report: The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Randi Weingarten

The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Read excerpts from the interview below.


Clemons: I know you want to get kids back to school, get education going again, but tell us the right way to do it, and what do you think is the wrong way to do it?

Weingarten: First off, we have to think about what kids have lost in the last few months. And that is why, despite the surge in cases, despite the fact that there’s not a vaccine, teachers and our union have been working on a plan to reopen schools since the beginning of April. This is it. We believe that we have to reopen in a far better way than the haphazard way that schools were closed and the economy was paused. We know that’s important for kids. We know that’s important for parents. We know that teachers want it. In fact, we just did a poll that showed that about three-quarters of teachers, if we had the safety conditions that were possible to reopen, would want to reopen in-person learning. But this is the key, Steve. Safety, S A F E T Y. We spent a lot of time thinking about safety of bars. We spent a lot of time thinking about safety of office buildings. We spent a lot of time thinking about safety for astronauts, for our veterans, for our armed forces. We need to spend as much time thinking about safety of our kids and of our educators. And there are obvious things that have to happen. And that starts with the physical distancing and the masks, cleaning a school and ventilation, making sure we make provisions for those that are at-risk and making sure we are attentive to the emotional and the instructional needs of children. This is not magical thinking. These are things that the scientists and the physicians have said we need to do, and ultimately they cost money and they require rethinking and reimagining what school looks like, in Florida as early as August and in the Northeast and the Midwest as early as September. And what we’re concerned about is that now the Trump administration has woken up to the fact that none of these things are in place. They have really angry parents, all across the nation, and they have only themselves to blame because they have refused to negotiate a new package to create the funding that is needed, and they have refused to put any guidance out whatsoever, but the CDC guidance that we press for to actually have what is a safe reopening.


Clemons: Even with the spike of COVID-19 cases, schools are being ordered to open next month in Florida. Is this a train wreck that we’re seeing in real life with real consequences?

Weingarten: Yes, it’s a train wreck, and it is par for the course of the Trump administration because [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos sat on her hands. She hasn’t put one bit of guidance out. We wrote a letter to [HHS Secretary Alex] Azar and DeVos, letters back in March. But we’ve been at this since the beginning of February, and sorry if I sound so angry, but I am. We’ve been at this since the beginning of February saying, “What’s going on with COVID? We know that there’s something here that’s more significant than just a flu,” and we’ve heard crickets from both of them. So now because parents, you know, are up in arms and they rightfully should be. And now, because all Trump cares about is his jobs numbers. And he knows that if parents can’t send their kids to school, they can’t reopen the economy more broadly. Now he’s doing full-cap tweets, saying schools must reopen. But either they are completely ignorant about what it takes to reopen schools, or they are completely callous and craven in their attempts to do so. What is happening in Florida right now is terrible. If you understand one second of the science, you know you cannot reopen schools five days a week … for every single kid that we want to teach, and we want to embrace. That essentially, the safety standards require basically 50 percent capacity, the cleaning standards require that you clean schools all the time. So where is the money for the extra cleaning, even if you did a staggered approach, which is what New York and other places are contemplating right now, where’s the money for the cleaning? Where’s the money for the PPE? Where’s the money for the services? Where’s the money for the nurses and for the therapists and you have crickets in Florida, you just essentially have this magical thinking. Opening schools is not the magical kingdom. Opening schools requires real thought for teachers and parents and kids. And this is what’s gonna happen if there’s not real thought to it. You’re gonna see a huge number of parents and kids and teachers basically say it’s not safe for us.


Clemons: You’ve worked with a lot of Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander and others. Do they hear you? Do they worry about what it’s gonna take by way of money and funding to get the right health guardrails back in the schools. 

Weingarten: Well, I think you know Senator Alexander does. Before [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell went on break, Senator Alexander said, It’s gonna take money to reopen schools. I had a great conversation with him where he, you know, he completely understands this. He has been a governor. He’s been a college president, you know, he understands the nitty-gritty of what it takes, but what is so perplexing to me is why McConnell would have gone on break without dealing with the legitimate needs of states and schools, particularly to do what they want to do. I mean, everybody should be in the same place about the needs of kids not being addressed by remote education. I think the only person who believed remote education was good was Betsy DeVos because, you know, she’s either held stock in K12 inc., which is a virtual remote place, or because she wants to keep on disabling or defunding public education. But other than that, I haven’t heard anybody on either side of the aisle that thought what happened in the last three months was good. They thought that teachers were heroic, and they are, for engaging kids, you know, and changing their teaching practices in the course of 24 hours to go from in-school to remote. But we know that kids are missing out in terms of the engagement in social isolation. I agree with the pediatricians on that, but ultimately we need to keep the schools safe. And particularly in a place like Florida, where the increase of cases is completely defying the president’s own guidelines about how to reopen. So it’s clear, I mean to me, this is lunacy. And I have studied this and this is my job to try to figure this out. But take a parent, who’s not a scientist, take a teacher who’s not a scientist, who’s just getting all these mixed messages. What are they supposed to think about? What the president is doing, what [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis is doing is just creating high anxiety. What we’ve learned from Europe, and from their very effective ways of reducing the virus, is you need to have a consistent public health message over and over again. You need people to communicate and collaborate around it and you need to fund it, and that is why their schools have started to be open. And that is why our schools, even for the summer, for summer voluntary summer school, couldn’t get open. And that’s why you’re seeing more and more consternation about what’s gonna happen in the fall.

Clemons: On top of the coronavirus situation, we have Black Lives Matter protests, the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others. In this moment, how do we become less reactive and more proactive? Can we use this opportunity of reinvesting in something like education in schools to fix some of the problems in the social contract? Is that discussion going on anywhere?

Weingarten: Well, it’s going on in the Joe Biden campaign. … I was honored to serve as part of the Joint Bernie, Joe Platform Committee on K-12 and higher education, and it went on plenty there. You’re gonna see a lot of that in his platform for America. I think you have a huge ideological divide right now, and you could see it frankly. So the answer is this makes schools more important. It makes investing in schools more important. Part of what is driving us, and I know my own members, you know, when you ask them the question about should we open up schools and what’s the best reason? And they’ll say, reopening the economy is last. For them, it’s meeting the needs of kids is first. And they understand, just like so many of us do, that we are in the middle of three crises: We’re in the middle of a pandemic that made the economic inequality worse, and we’re in the middle of a racial reckoning that should have happened generations ago. All of these things make what happens in schools even more important, and it makes dealing with the well being needs of kids even more critical. Everything, every social issue hits the schoolhouse door, so I hear Biden talk about it all the time. I hear frankly, Democrats and some Republicans talk about it, but what you’re seeing is that Trump is making it worse. And frankly, you saw this in terms of even PPP, and the reports about PPP. PPP was a program out of CARES 2 that was attempting to make sure that small businesses and other businesses in this economic pause could keep hiring, could keep their staff intact and could keep their businesses alive. And who were the first groups to rush to get? Groups that don’t believe in government like the Ayn Rand Institute and Grover Norquist, Kanye West and who is still squabbling to try to get money, who is still struggling to try to get money so that we can reasonably reopen schools. Kids and teachers. So what does that say about our economy and our country right now? That the hand outs were there for those actually didn’t need it, and for those who don’t believe in it ,and then put the hand ups that we really need for kids and for states who have been continuing to do the essential services as the president abdicated any responsibility for COVID, who got the responsibility? States like New York, like New Jersey, they’ve been shelling out lots of money to get things done. Think about the New York City subways every single night they’re being clean to ensure safety for the passengers. All of this costs money, and yet they’ve been shelling it out. They haven’t gotten the recovery packages they needed. And yet even the people who don’t believe in government like Grover Norquist got the package he needed. … I think everybody needed something in terms of this, forced pause of the economy. But don’t put the people who need it most last. And what the Biden people are talking about is how you reimagine society like what happened in the New Deal.

Clemons: So we’ve just got a couple of minutes. But I wanted to come in at that point real quick. Secretary DeVos, I know has been pushing that private schools have access to funding and support right now. Has she been as equally supportive of public schools?

Weingarten: No, in fact, what happened is Secretary DeVos, look private schools and parochial schools get a lot of public money through transportation and other types of things. The issue in terms of Secretary DeVos, is where her attention is. She’s done nothing, zip, nothing for kids in public schools. But she rushes in to help any kid who goes to religious school. All we’re asking for is give some attention to kids in public schools and what she’s done is she’s taken the money that goes to low-income kids in public schools to give it without accountability to a parochial school or a private school.


Clemons: Your network of teachers around the country, were already doing interesting things online with each other, like sharing their lessons online, which you had created. I’d love to hear, just as we close any stories of those cool, innovative things that teachers are doing to try to connect with their students while they’re not able to meet in person-to-person classes.

Weingarten: The teachers probably now know more about remote education than anyone in Silicon Valley because teachers have had to do the kind of “Oh my God moment” and deal with remote education for the last three months. And I have spent several hours talking to teachers who have been through this and they’ve learned a lot. So there’s a couple of things that I just want to throw out. Number one we started this idea, and all of this as on Share My Lesson, and all of that is for free. We make it free for anyone. You don’t have to be a union member to get access to this sharing site. But you know, we tried to end up summing up the year with capstone projects, and we came up with several that were geared developmentally to early grades, to middle grades and high school years as ways that teachers could work with students to cap their years and those are all on Share My Lesson. But the second thing is teachers just found amazing ways, they would like find an old blackboard that they had in a garage and use it for their lessons. They found all sorts of different things to wear to make their kids laugh. In a proper physical distance, would sit on the kids lawn and engaged with one-to-one story telling. Teachers were telling me, particularly in the older grades, how they did what they call what we call now asynchronous learning, which is, they tape a lecture that a student could listen to any time during the day so that they could deal with the family balance and then, you know, reinforce it in group learning. The virtual choirs that you see, the virtual choruses that you see have taken hours and hours and hours to do. But any of them would just — have a handkerchief when you’re watching them. It’s been amazing to watch the love coming through Zoom in terms of the engagement that teachers have done with their students.

Tags Betsy DeVos Coronavirus Coronavirus Report Joe Biden Kanye West Lamar Alexander

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