This week, as U.S. coronavirus deaths topped 100,000 and President Donald Trump tweeted that “schools in our country should be opened ASAP,” the USA TODAY Editorial Board spoke with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The teachers’ union has issued detailed guidelines for reopening schools. Questions and answers have been edited for length, clarity and flow:
Q. Do you agree with President Trump that schools should reopen as soon as possible?
A. Trump has created this false narrative that people either want to stay in place, locked down, or you open things up as if it was last June. So, no, I don’t agree with him. I’m actually less sanguine this week about opening than I was three or four weeks ago (based on) what happened at Lake of the Ozarks (in Missouri) and other places. Because if we have community spreaders and a second wave (of infections) before the summer ends, then I think all bets are off.
Q. What have we learned about online education?
A. Remote-only education is something that we all know has not been good for kids. People have tried really hard, and they’ve worked really hard, and they’ve turned on the dime in amazing ways. I think people really respect teachers now for what they’ve tried to do. But (online education) is not a substitute for the relationship building and the alchemy that happens in schools and in classrooms. Even though you’ll probably find a kid or two who will excel in it, this remote way of educating kids is not great.
Q. Is there a point this summer when we should know whether schools are going to open on time for the fall semester?
A. A lot of schools in the South start opening Aug. 1. So you’re going to see schooling. I think your question is, what’s going to happen in terms of school buildings? And I think we’re going to know that based upon two facts. Will we get this (financial aid) package (from Congress)? Because if we don’t get that package, then school buildings are not going to reopen in the way that they need to. The second real issue, which is a big uncertainty, is whether there’s going to be a second wave. If a second wave crops up that you can’t contain, then schools won’t open in September. I want schools to open safely and responsibly, and as a union, we are doing everything in our power to prepare people to do that and to try to make it work.
Q. Tell us about AFT’s plan for reopening.
A. We talked to a bunch of epidemiologists and people from (foundations). We talked to doctors. We had our members involved. And we realized that there is a path to reopening schools safely and responsibly. It’s going to cost more money than we’re spending now. … Until we know what the federal aid package is going to be for states, for schools, for localities, a lot of people are really immobilized.
“I’m 62, and I’m an asthmatic. I talk to a lot of my colleagues. You know, we’re scared to death,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells the USA TODAY Editorial Board on May 27, 2020.
Q. What are things going to look like this fall?
A. The most important thing I can say is that uncertainty is going to be a fact of life. Most districts start with an instinct that they would like to open their school buildings in the fall. The challenges are how do you marry the public health needs of reducing transmission of virus and the educational needs in order to do that? That’s the challenge that every single school system is going through.
Q. Assuming the virus is still circulating, how do you deal with that?
A. This is where the rubber hits the road. You assume that there’s still going to be some community spread. So how do you reduce or prevent that virus spread in the school? And that’s where the notion of temperature (checks), masks, physical distancing, washing hands and sanitation comes in. How do you use that mix of those five tools?
Q. Can you really physically distance inside a school?
A. You might have to halve the size of the school in terms of the number of kids that are there. You might have to stagger morning and afternoon sessions. When I went to public schools, when dinosaurs roamed, we did have double and triple sessions because of the overcrowding. But now you’d have to clean the school between sessions.
Q. What are some of the other tough issues?
A. How do you create enough water facilities so that kids are washing their hands, not just sanitizing with these instant little wipes that I carry around all the time? What’s the role of masks? How do you stagger buses? How many kids on a bus? How many bus routes? What happens in terms of high school students? I could actually see some high schools being one day a week because high school students may be able to do more in remote.
Q. What about teachers and students who are in high-risk groups?
A. We are trying to find ways of reopening schools in a hybrid model. There’s going to be roles for teachers who are also immunocompromised. This takes planning. But if we actually started throwing models out that might work, and building off of them, people will have more trust. If we end up having several models out there that people can look at and say, this makes sense, I think that we’re going to start seeing it being more realistic.
Q. This all sounds really complex. How realistic is it that the majority of schools will be able to pull together this type of planning?
A. If you had told me that we would have changed to a remote system within the course of days, as hard and uneven as that was, I would have looked at you and said, “I don’t think that that’s really possible.” (Reopening is going to be hard, but) it’s not good for kids to be home like this. It’s not good for people to be in isolation like this. And to the extent that we can try to figure things out, we have to try.
Q. Are you seeing particular districts around the country that, in your view, are getting it right or coming up with innovative ideas?
A. Jacksonville, Florida, and Cleveland got a whole bunch of things right in very different ways. Some of the rural districts are getting things right in various different ways. … We’re going to have to figure out how to do some formative assessments of where kids are. We’re going to have to think about this coming year as a bridge year. And that’s part of the reason why we made the suggestion about how you road test some of this in the summer. This is what Israel did. They brought kids in who were special needs before they brought other kids in. In Norway, I think in Denmark, they brought younger kids in first, too, because they were less amenable to looking at a screen for an hour.
Q. Are you getting pushback from members for suggesting that summer school is a good way to test some of these approaches?
A. Look, some of my members are like, why are you pushing for this? And why are you pushing for summer school? We have to get over the fear. The fear is legitimate. The anxiety is legitimate. I am sure all of you know people who have been sick, who have died. In my home local (in New York), we’ve had over 70 active school teachers and paraprofessionals who have died. New York City should have closed two weeks beforehand. We saw schools where COVID-positive people were walking around. People are really scared. This illness, excuse my language, it knocks the s–t out of you.
Q. A new USA TODAY/Ipsos polls found that 20% of teachers say they are unlikely to return in the fall. Does that surprise you?
A. I frankly expected that number to be much higher because of the level of distrust and the chaos that’s going on. … I’m 62, and I’m an asthmatic. I talk to a lot of my colleagues. You know, we’re scared to death. So if you don’t actually involve them in a plan and involve parents in a plan, those who can opt out are going to opt out.
Q. What would be the impact of so may teachers leaving?
A. It would mean a huge brain drain, and it would hurt kids if you had that level of brain drain in one school year. So on top of having all of this learning lost, and all of this chaos and all of this anxiety, and then you had that brain drain, that wouldn’t be good for kids.
Q. In your decades in education, is this the most difficult and complex challenge you’ve faced?
A. Yes. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that there’s no help. I mean, it really is “The Hunger Games.” We actually spent six weeks sourcing PPE (personal protective equipment). I will never forget the conversation I had with our health care leaders. I listened for an hour and 15 minutes as people were literally crying to me about how their members were getting sick because they were reusing N95 masks or they didn’t have gowns, they didn’t have face guards, they didn’t have what they needed. And we spent $3million sourcing PPE from China, from 3M, from others. We’re still waiting for the N95s that we have paid for from various different places. But we got the 1 million face masks from China, and we got the 50,000 face shields.
Q. Do you think this crisis has made people more appreciative of teachers?
A. It is both, you know, in Dickens terms, the worst of worlds and the best of worlds in the kindness and gratitude that we’re also seeing. And that is the America that I want to see.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Despite coronavirus, how schools can reopen safely: Teachers’ union