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Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, lives just on the other side of the Bronx, next to a big hospital run by Columbia University. In spite of COVID-19 numbers ticking up, many of the teachers Randi represents in New York City returned to the classroom this week. It was the latest twist in a rocky start to the city’s school year. First, school got delayed, then in-person learning was shut down completely a few weeks back, as the city scrambled to meet the demands of union leaders like Weingarten. Some parents have been frustrated with how teachers unions have handled the crisis. But Weingarten focuses much of her frustration about COVID in one place: the Trump administration. She says that from the beginning, it kept information about the virus from stakeholders like her. And union leaders tried to pressure the administration to act, to no avail. So what do teachers unions actually want? When will the coronavirus be sufficiently under control that educators and kids can go back to class—and how long can they stay there? To work through this issue, I spoke with Weingarten on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: In an appearance on CNN at the beginning of March, you issued a kind of warning—
Randi Weingarten: The week that I was on CNN … as much as I didn’t want schools to close, you didn’t know what was going to happen with this contagion. And I thought it was important to actually give people notice.
I think part of the failure here is a failure of communication. We didn’t have the information. And clearly the administration was not talking. That may be one of the worst things about this. If you’re not getting something consistent from the federal government, then you just see lots of panic. I felt like it was important to start alerting teachers and parents that we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we know that this was serious and that there might be closures. So that’s why I started raising it at the beginning of March.
Over the months that followed the initial shutdown of schools, it seemed like there was such a tug of war between people in government and folks like you who advocate for your members. What I’m hearing from you is that the trust between these two sides was broken very early on, like, before we even really knew what was happening.
The people who should have known what was going on weren’t talking, or were denying it. But you could see from facts on the ground that there was this very dangerous virus that was really harming people. So it creates huge cognitive dissonance. On the ground, our union reps were working as closely as they could, and parents were listening to everyone. Teachers then turned on a dime to try to do remote education. So there was huge cooperation on the ground initially, but with an absence of knowledge about what was going on.
You have to be optimistic when you’re a school teacher. But it went from optimism to anger over the summer, watching the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos and others attempt to pit parents against educators and not have a national plan, not use national resources, not do anything to help, but then try to use it politically to pit the needs of parents against the needs of teachers. And they weren’t even doing any money for child care. So it was really frustrating to try to figure out what do you do in the fall. You got basically state after state after state doing different things. I was on Cuomo School Reopening committee in New York, so we had access to lots of information from there as well as from other places. Ultimately, you didn’t have the underlying trust that you need to have in a public health pandemic, when people know what’s going on. And then you had all the fatigue and the economic issues, all of which were really, really, really important. So what happens to kids and what happens to teachers?
All the responsibility of the federal government, state government, city governments—all of them, particularly the federal government, completely abdicated their responsibility.
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You gave this speech at your annual meeting that the Washington Post called “blistering.” You really pointed the finger at Donald Trump and said the country is confronting three crises: this public health crisis, the economic crisis, and a crisis of racial justice. And one factor, one person, is making them all worse: Donald Trump. And then you raised the specter of strikes. It seemed to me like an intentional escalation. Is that fair?
I do a lot of things with some forethought and with intentionality, I think that if you are a labor leader and a national labor leader, you have to do that. It’s not that you cannot simply do things as much as you would like to because of emotion or passion. Purpose has to be aligned with passion here. The point about a safety strike was that if we couldn’t get the responsible agents to do what they needed to do, then we needed to actually raise the specter of withholding services to get what we needed, because we knew that educators wanted to be in school in person if we had the safeguards in place. We knew parents needed that kind of normalcy for their kids. We knew that kids needed education.
But what we were seeing in school district after school district was that they didn’t have the resources. So even though CDC says that you need mass, we don’t have mass—we are not going to be able to do the physical distancing. They’re going to forsake our health and safety and students’ health and safety. And we were like, no, that’s not OK with us.
But I wonder if you ever saw this moment in the summer as a kind of opportunity, because the president clearly wanted people back in school. He kept having events and giving speeches and bringing it up.
Look, we always saw this as an opportunity, but they have never talked to us. When DeVos was first confirmed, I wrote to her and suggested that she come to schools with me. She did, and that was the last time I had a conversation with her. They just refused to talk to us. The irony here is that we actually had the same wish about reopening schools, but we had one more word there for students: safely.
You did have this huge surge of members who did want to return to the classroom. But when Trump started saying, “You’ve got to get back in there,” it seems like it changed the tide a little bit.
The real problem in terms of what Trump did was that he acted as if teachers were dispensable and children were dismissible. And the other thing that was going on was that CDC was watering down safeguards. The more you heard Trump’s rhetoric, the more you saw the CDC watering down its rhetoric and the safeguards. And that also created real distrust.
A couple of political scientists looked at plans schools had made in the fall to get kids learning again. They cross referenced that with union information and found that districts with stronger unions seemed less likely to be holding in-person classes. But you say it’s too simple to blame unions for the fact that so many kids are still learning from home because the districts with the strongest unions need them—and educators have good reasons to distrust the officials overseeing them.
You see in the in the cities where you had long-term austerity issues, where windows don’t open, where there’s no soap in schools, those are the places where you see school systems not being able to open in person because they couldn’t set up safeguards. You see that in in Chicago. You saw that in Philadelphia.
So you’re saying it’s the underlying issues that existed previously.
Exactly. The fact is that many of us have wanted to reopen school buildings, but we wanted to go through all the safeguards. But what has happened in the last few weeks is you’re seeing school systems all across America close again because of the spread.
You’ve said that before teachers return, the virus needs to be “under control.” But of course, the virus isn’t under control, not by a long shot.
I mean, what we’re talking about is you’ve got to plateau what’s going on. You can’t have the virus going in the wrong direction. And everyone who’s gotten sick understands the extent to which this virus is dangerous to people’s lives. We have to get it going in the other direction.
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