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School Districts, Teachers Are At Odds Over Resuming In-Person Classes

NOEL KING, HOST:

And it is not just Chicago. President Biden wants all schools to be ready to go back to in-person learning by the end of April. The problem is teachers and administrators don't agree on how to get that done. Rachel recently talked to Randi Weingarten, who's the head of the American Federation of Teachers.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look. They're scared. Think about what has happened to teachers over the last year. There's a lot of fear because there's been a lot of misinformation. So we have to meet fear with facts. And we have to find ways to create the environment so that it's safe. And frankly, once we do that in a few places, you know, just like New York has done that - we're starting to have phased reopenings in Boston. We have to have examples that can be lifted up because, frankly, people need to trust that elected officials are going to have their best interest in mind.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Is it just a matter of not trusting the officials? Is it a matter of not trusting that science?

WEINGARTEN: It's not a matter of not trusting the science. It's a matter of there's been so much disinformation, you know, people don't know who to trust. And so part of what's vital here is to make sure that educators are involved in this process, as well as the resources to make it happen.

MARTIN: Should all teachers be required to get vaccinated?

WEINGARTEN: I think that all teachers who want to get vaccinated should be able to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. I think that that creates another layer of protection.

MARTIN: But do I hear you saying you don't think it should be a requirement for all teachers?

WEINGARTEN: So I'm a big believer that 100% of people should get vaccinated. I think that science suggests that. But given the country that we're in right now and given the level of distrust about vaccines, we have a lot more work to do about vaccine hesitancy before you can even address that question. What's good, though, is that all across the country, educators are clamoring for the vaccine. There is a reason why CDC has put teachers into the 1b prioritization, which we push for because we know that it is an added level of protection.

MARTIN: Should schools be required to find the money to hire teachers to replace those educators who prefer to stay home?

WEINGARTEN: Well, it's not a matter of prefer to stay home. It's a matter of if you are in a high-risk situation or if you're taking care of your elderly mom and you bring COVID home, you're at risk of transmitting it to your mother or to an immunocompromised, you know, child.

MARTIN: Completely understood. It's not preference, necessarily. It's a safety issue, and they feel safer staying home. But is it then incumbent upon those schools to find the money to replace those teachers so that every child, every family that wants to send their kids back to in-person can have that opportunity?

WEINGARTEN: Yes. And we have thought that it would take - because of the safety precautions that are needed, we thought it would actually require about 20% more space and 20% more staffing to be able to do this.

KING: We know there's wide consensus a lot of kids are falling behind academically. But as you know, the emotional, psychological toll on kids has been huge. The CDC found that from April to October 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the proportion of mental health emergency visits for kids ages 5 to 11. I mean, how do you, as a leader of this union, measure the actual pain and suffering of the kids against the potential pain and suffering of your teachers?

WEINGARTEN: Well, look. There's fear and pain everywhere. And frankly, the lion's share of teachers are parents, as well. For educators, they understand what's going on with our kids. They're scared for our kids. They're scared for themselves. And that's why we're working double and triple time and have been for months to get the resources, to get the safeguards and to get a consistent message from government about what is needed.

MARTIN: Randi Weingarten. She is president of the American Federation of Teachers. We appreciate your time.

WEINGARTEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "OUR NIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.