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American Federation of Teachers president calls for full school reopenings in the fall

American Federation of Teachers president calls for full school reopenings in the fall
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The president of the second-largest teachers’ union in the U.S. called for schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction five days a week in the fall during an address on Thursday. 

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), weighed in on the debate over school reopenings amid the COVID-19 pandemic as supporters of returning to full in-person learning have accused teachers' unions of being an obstacle to the move for requesting safety precautions. 

The AFT president argued that “prolonged isolation is harmful” for students and that remote school inhibits parents’, in particular mothers,’ ability to work. She also outlined proposals to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

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“There is no doubt: Schools must be open,” she said.

“Conditions have changed,” she added. “We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning and support. And we must keep them open. Fully and safely five days a week.”

The president of the union with 1.7 million members committed $5 million toward a campaign that will have teachers host open houses and go door to door to discuss the strategy for reopening and alleviate any parent worries about getting back to in-person instruction. 

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” she said.

Weingarten acknowledged that returning is “not risk-free” but that risk can be diminished through precautions like masking and hand-washing, as well as larger adjustments to reduce class sizes and teach in additional spaces.

The AFT president proposed hiring more teachers to allow for smaller classes and explore teaching in empty storefronts, offices, mobile trailers or tents. 

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She also recommended all schools have a committee for school staff, parents and "where appropriate" students to prepare and respond to any "safety issues."

Weingarten added that the AFT Executive Council unanimously approved a resolution on Wednesday "on everything I am talking about today."

The New York Times first reported on Weingarten’s remarks Thursday morning. 

Weingarten’s address comes as about half of schools have returned to full in-person teaching, while the other half remain on either fully remote or hybrid schedules, according to the Return to Learn Tracker.  

In her speech, she defended teachers and unions, who have been accused of delaying reopening by pushing for meticulous safety precautions. Weingarten said teachers have only asked for "a safe workplace during this pandemic and the resources they and their students need to succeed." 

“They are exhausted,” she said. “They’re working longer hours, troubleshooting IT problems, and trying to connect with students despite the barriers — whether that’s a computer screen or a Plexiglas shield. And if there’s an educator in your life, you know this.”

“Yet critics have scapegoated teachers and vilified their unions because of the school closures during the pandemic, ignoring the extreme disparities among schools and blaming teachers for problems outside their control,” she said. 

Weingarten said with 89 percent of AFT members vaccinated or willing to be, she thinks less teachers will opt for medical accommodations to teach remotely in the fall.

But as several families continue to opt for remote learning, some unions have argued that focus instead should be placed on reforming online teaching. 

Updated at 11:55 a.m.