AFT President Says Union ‘All In’ on Fall School Reopening in Dramatic Messaging Shift

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., November 1, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten abandoned her opposition to full school reopening on Thursday, delivering a speech in which she called for schools nation-wide to return to the pre-pandemic education model.

“Schools must be open. In person. Five days a week” this fall, said Weingarten, whose teacher’s union influenced language used in the CDC’s February guidelines on reopening schools to allow more room for teachers to choose to stay home.

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” Weingarten said in speech, adding that the AFT would commit $5 million for a confidence-boosting campaign to help get families to commit to a return to school.

More than a year into the pandemic, half of the country’s public schools still do not offer full in-person instruction, in part due to Weingarten’s refusal to offer a deadline for when all schools should be back in-person full time.

Weingarten continued to hedge slightly in her Thursday speech, warning that returning to school is “not risk-free.”

Weingarten and the ATF complained in March after the CDC updated its social-distancing parameter for schools, reducing it from six to three feet.

“Our concern is that the cited studies do not identify the baseline mitigation strategies needed to support 3 feet of physical distancing,” Weingarten wrote at the time — even as a CDC report analyzing Florida schools from August through December 2020 found that less than 1 percent of students contracted coronavirus at school.

In February, the ATF pushed for the CDC to include exemptions from in-person work for teachers and staff at higher risk of susceptibility to coronavirus, according to emails.

Though the Biden White House has pushed back on the claim that it was influenced by Weingarten and her staff, Weingarten said this week that while the Trump administration did not listen to her, the Biden administration “did the safety guidance.”

Weingarten has also cited debunked studies — suggesting that COVID-19 was very transmissible through children — to defend her cautious approach.

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