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‘Reckless, callous, cruel’: teachers’ chief denounces Trump plan to reopen schools

‘Angry’ AFT president Randi Weingarten tells Guardian proposal from Trump and Betsy DeVos could result in teaching exodus

By Jessica Glenza | The Guardian | July 17, 2020

Plans put forward by Donald Trump and his education secretary to reopen America’s schools in the fall are “reckless” and could result in many teachers leaving the profession, the president of one of the country’s biggest teaching unions has warned.

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The new school year is just weeks away in the “sun belt”, the region which stretches from southern California to Florida, as coronavirus spreads like wildfire. But the Trump administration has pushed ahead with calls for schools across the country to reopen fully, despite widespread safety concerns.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Guardian she watched Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, with disbelief that turned to anger when she appeared on TV this week to call on schools to be “fully operational” this fall.

“It’s as if Trump and DeVos want to create chaos and want to jeopardize reopening,” Weingarten said in an interview. “There’s no other reason why they would be this reckless, this callous, this cruel.”

Florida is setting new infection and death records almost daily. California is returning to lockdown, with bars, restaurants and even offices shuttered. Texas and Arizona are requesting refrigerator trucks as cases increase and morgues are expected to fill to capacity.

The Trump administration has made school reopenings one of its main priorities as it attempts to deal with the coronavirus crisis, with less that four months to go until the November election. Trump has tweeted multiple times that schools “must” reopen in the fall, and berated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on reopening schools as too “tough” and “expensive”.

Trump has also threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that do not reopen because of coronavirus concerns. Although that is not within his power, Republicans in Congress are now looking to try to attach conditions to emergency school funding in the forthcoming coronavirus relief package.

In her television appearance, DeVos excoriated those schools that have opted for online learning or part-time returns.

This has foiled months of work from Weingarten’s union, which has been conducting its own surveys on how to help teachers back to work. In June, two-thirds of the AFT’s 1.7 million members said they would prefer to teach in person at least part-time – on the condition there were safeguards such as masks, physical distancing, ventilation and sanitation.

Their recklessness scared people so much that now I fear a brain drain of people basically opting out of teachingRandi Weingarten

Broad agreement is no small feat for a teaching workforce in which a quarter – or 1.5 million teachers nationally – are believed to be at heightened risk of Covid-19 complications, because of age or pre-existing conditions. The agreement is also a feat considering recent polls show broad majorities of voters see a return to school as risky.

“They have, from the beginning of this pandemic to now, made this much, much, much worse for not only the 137,000 who have died and the over 3 million Americans who have tested positive,” said Weingarten. “Not just in beginning, and the haphazard way we closed, but the haphazard way we will reopen.”Advertisement

She said: “Their recklessness scared people so much that now I fear a brain drain of people basically opting out of teaching, because they don’t want to jeopardize their own families.”

Few dispute that virtual instruction, even when it is necessary, is inferior to in-person classes. Children are far less likely to be infected by or suffer complications from Covid-19. However, that risk changes with age and chronic health conditions, and the extent to which children can spread the disease is a matter of disagreement among experts.

Schools face myriad logistical challenges. Even as they retrofit buildings, implement enhanced cleaning, and buy more supplies, state budgets hit hard by a pandemic-induced recession are proposing school funding cuts. In one example, New York proposed a 20% cut in school funding in April.

“You have to have a plan that embeds safety, and the resources to do this,” said Weingarten.

The mounting surge in the American south and south-west has resulted in Covid-19 test result delays of a week or longer, and stretch far outside the worst-affected regions, making contact-tracing efforts all but impossible. And school districts could also stumble at the personal protective equipment market, which is rife with million-mask minimum orders and fraud.

Meanwhile, the varying resources available to schools have widened the divide between rich and poor students at a steady clip. While the most vulnerable students miss school meals, wealthy private schools have been able to call on donors to retrofit buildings and return to class.

Despite these federal calls for reopening, school districts are locally controlled. Los Angeles and San Diego schools have both announced they will only teach online this fall, as cases surge in southern California. In the hardest-hit counties of Florida, officials are weighing whether to have half in-person, half-virtual instruction, called hybrid models, or fully online instruction.

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Some states that are not experiencing widespread Covid-19 outbreaks will probably be able to reopen in the fall. But Weingarten called for choice – both for educators with special health requirements, and for parents fearful children could spread Covid-19 to vulnerable family members.

“Teachers understand the importance of physical schooling, because teachers want what kids need,” she said. “We’re about to be comfortable with these safeguards, until Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos intentionally scared them and scared families. And that’s why I am so angry.”

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