By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – The president of the second-largest U.S. teachers’ union on Thursday called for fully reopening schools for in-person classes in the fall.
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, added in a speech in Washington that just returning to classrooms wasn’t enough.
“We must also put into place the supports to help students recover socially, emotionally and academically,” she said.
Weingarten called this a moment to fully re-imagine the approach to education and push for creative solutions to the educational divide between white, Black and brown students that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of Weingarten’s call for fully opened schools this fall: “We agree.”
School closures have affected every state. As of last week, 32% of students attended public schools that were partially or completely closed, according to Burbio, a service that tracks school openings.
Critics accuse teacher unions of slowing reopenings by demanding virus mitigation practices, such as universal masking, fewer kids in classrooms and social distancing. Teachers have been widely vaccinated and research has shown little evidence that in-person learning was driving COVID-19 infection.
Weingarten pushed back on criticism, saying that creating safe conditions in schools “is not an obstacle to reopening classrooms; it is the pathway to going back.”
She called vaccines a “game changer” for teachers to have confidence that they can safely teach in person and for parents to trust that they can send their kids back.
In an interview, Weingarten said it was paramount that local leaders do everything possible to overcome the hesitancy some parents have in getting their children vaccinated, especially among Black and Latino parents.
Her union will spend $5 million on a nationwide campaign to send activists door to door to convince parents to send kids to school this fall, Weingarten said.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Donna Bryson and Cynthia Osterman)