Major teachers union will back ‘safety strikes’ to block unsafe school reopening

The American Federation of Teachers will support its members if they decide to strike over the rush to reopen schools without regard for safety, the union announced Tuesday. The union has been pushing for increased federal funding to help schools reopen safely, but with Mitch McConnell’s Senate taking its sweet time and Donald Trump demanding in-person schooling regardless of safety, teachers can’t just sit and wait.

“Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve,” the resolution from the 1.7 million-member union’s executive council reads, “including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.”

The AFT’s guidelines for safe reopening in person include the ability of schools to implement social distancing, ventilation and other upgrades to schools, adequate hand-washing facilities, and mask-wearing. But additionally, the union calls for communities to meet safety standards and not reopen schools until “The average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent,” as well as having in place contact tracing and “a statewide, city- and/or community-level authority empowered to trigger closure in the event of a spike in infection or when public health standards aren’t being met.” 

The current Senate Republican proposal includes just $70 billion of the hundreds of billions of dollars in funding experts say are needed to make schools safe, and Republicans are requiring in-person classes for access to much of that already inadequate funding. So schools that aren’t safe to open because they require additional funding to make them safe would be entirely screwed. As is the Republican way.

“Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he has mishandled everything else about the coronavirus?” AFT President Randi Weingarten asked in a speech to the union’s convention, being held online. “Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos? Unless all they wanted was for it to fail?”

”Before the virus’ resurgence, and before Trump’s and DeVos’ reckless ‘open or else’ threats, 76 percent of AFT members said they were comfortable returning to school buildings if the proper safeguards were in place,” Weingarten noted. But recent events have changed that—and it’s beyond clear that the proper safeguards will not be in place if Trump has anything to do with it.

Teachers continue to fight it out state by state, trying to find a way to educate kids without risking the lives of teachers and students alike. The Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his reckless push to reopen. After pressure from Massachusetts teachers unions, the state’s schools will open 10 days late to give time to prepare for whatever it is education will look like. “We had 24 hours to plan for crisis learning remotely in the spring, and not a single minute in the last 13 weeks to stop and reflect and evaluate and revise it,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said. The 10-day pause is intended to provide that time—but teachers in the state are still pushing for other key provisions to make the coming year safe. In New York City, the Movement of Rank and File Educators is threatening a sickout if the city doesn’t ensure safety. In California, teachers unions were pushing back against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pressure to reopen in person—until Newsom ordered schools in much of the state to open remotely until things are safer.

Schools are massively important not just to kids but to the economy as a whole. Yet Republicans have put everything else ahead of them, making it essentially impossible to safely open schools in much of the country. This required a giant investment months ago to make school buildings safer, and a giant effort to reduce community transmission of coronavirus so that well-ventilated schools with social distancing and mask-wearing have even a small prayer of avoiding outbreaks. It shouldn’t be on teachers to make federal and state and local lawmakers bend to what the science is already telling them.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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