One of the nation’s largest teachers union is authorizing its members to strike if their schools plan to reopen without proper safety measures in the middle of the global pandemic.
The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution on Tuesday saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans. The group says school buildings should open only in areas where coronavirus infections are low enough and if schools enact certain safety measures.
FILE - Middle school teacher Danielle Weigand stands in protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
In announcing the measure, the union’s president blasted President Donald Trump for ordering schools to reopen even as the virus continues to surge. Randi Weingarten called Trump’s response “chaotic and catastrophic,” saying it has left teachers angry and afraid.
“We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators,” Weingarten said in prepared remarks to the group’s annual convention. “But if authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table.”
Union leaders approved the resolution Friday but announced it Tuesday at the group’s convention, which is being held online amid the pandemic.
For weeks, Trump has pressed for a full reopening of the nation’s schools. Last week he acknowledged that some schools may need to delay a return to in-person instruction, but he’s still asking Congress to withhold future virus relief to schools that fail to reopen.
Some of the nation’s largest districts have opted to start the school year online, including those in the Bay Area, as well as in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. Some are starting entirely online, while others are offering a mix of online and in-person instruction to reduce the number of students in school buildings.
Children in an elementary school class wearing masks enter the classroom with desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Image
The union’s resolution lays out conditions the group wants met for schools to reopen. It says schools must require masks, promote social distancing and update ventilation systems, among other measures.
It also says schools should reopen only in areas with infection rates below 5% and transmission rates below 1%, and only if local officials have taken steps to trace and isolate cases.
For many schools, more funding will be needed to reopen safely, the group said. It estimates the average school will need at least $1.2 million, amounting to $116 billion nationwide. The resolution says Trump and Senate Republicans have “have failed to negotiate and pass a new stimulus bill to address the resources vitally needed for reopening our schools.”
The latest stimulus proposal from the White House and Senate Republicans includes $105 billion for schools and colleges, though some of the money is only for schools that reopen for in-person classes. In May, the Democratic-led House included $100 billion for schools — none of it limited to those holding on-site classes — but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said even more money is needed.
In her speech, Weingarten said teachers want schools to reopen. Children need in-person instruction, she said, adding that remote instruction is “no substitute for it.” But she said teachers need to know they’ll be kept safe.
Before Trump began pressing schools to reopen, she said, a union poll found that its members were comfortable returning if proper safeguards were in place.
“Now they’re afraid and angry,” she said. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills.”
Along with strikes, the union said it will fight unsafe reopening plans through lawsuits and labor grievances. The union’s Florida chapter filed a lawsuit last week attempting to block the state’s plan to reopen schools, which the suit called “reckless and unsafe.”