The AFT and NEA: The Voice of Teachers as Schools Reopen

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Few people question the benefit of kids getting back to school. But nearly everyone is concerned with how to reopen schools safely. It has become one of the biggest, most complicated issues in the country as the U.S struggles to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and resume some sense of normalcy.


Despite the near-universal goal of returning students to classrooms this fall, the reality is that school districts cannot simply flip a switch and return to the pre-pandemic school structure,” write Scott Sargrad and Maura Calsyn, respectively vice president of K-12 education policy and managing director of health policy at the Center of American Progress.


Schools are running short on time to figure out how they will manage their fall semesters. That time crunch has some teachers concerned that safety will be an afterthought in back-to-school plans. “Teachers say they still have many unanswered questions about how it will all work,” writes Madeline Will, a reporter for Education Week.


The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are leading the charge on behalf of teachers to help get those answers and to ensure that school districts prioritize safety as they reopen schools.


Both Unions Have Issued Back-to-School Guidance 


Physically reopening schools has turned into a contentious issue between federal and state officials, who are pushing hard to get kids back in the classroom, and the teachers, parents, and unions cautioning restraint. 


Safety does not appear to be a top concern of the Trump administration,” writes Cindy Long, senior writer and media specialist at the NEA, after the administration dismissed the reopening guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which it called too “restrictive” and expensive.” 


At the same time, the federal government isn’t issuing an alternative, only threatening to cut off funding for schools that don’t fully reopen in the fall.  

To counter that lack of focus on safety, education organizations are following the science and prioritizing safety. “There’s no one that wants our kids back more than teachers … but we want to open it safely,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA.


To that end, both the AFT and the NEA have issued guidelines for safely reopening schools.


The AFT’s Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities features five core pillars to inform the decision to reopen. Those pillars include:

  • Maintaining physical distancing.

  • Building infrastructure and resources to test, trace and isolate new cases.

  • Focusing on public health tools such as proper personal protective equipment and screening.

  • Participating in collaborative planning for reopening.

  • Investing financially in recovery.  

By drawing on facts and science, and the expertise of educators and healthcare practitioners, we have drafted a bold five-point plan that aligns necessary public health tools, student instructional needs and logistics to gradually—but safely, equitably and intentionally—reopen our schools and communities,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT.


The NEA’s All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings offers guidance built around four basic principles for successful reopening. The principles are: 

  • Ensuring science-based health expertise drives decisions.

  • Giving educators a voice in the decision-making process.

  • Providing everyone access to protective measures, such as PPE and sanitization.

  • Achieving racial and social justice. 

The National Education Association believes that any reopening model has to not only ensure the health and safety of students and staff, but also prioritize long term strategies on student learning and educational equity,” says Tim Walker, senior editor and writer at the NEA.


Both sets of guidelines are designed to help school districts develop individualized reopening plans that are best for the teachers and students in their communities. 


Both Unions Support Teachers Strikes in the Name of Safety


As the debate about reopening schools continues, teachers are using all the options they have to get their voices heard. That includes going on strike. The AFT and the NEA have both put forth the idea of teachers striking to protest the lack of safety in back to school plans as a last resort. 


If authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” says Weingarten.


Eskelsen García echoed that sentiment: “Nobody wants to see students back in the classroom more than educators. But when it comes to their safety, we’re not ready to take any options off the table.”

While no national or local teachers unions have yet voted to go on strike, the willingness to do so highlights the lengths teachers are prepared to go to protect themselves and their students. 


Both Unions Encourage Collaboration in Planning


The impacts of reopening schools will reverberate beyond the walls of the schools.


In July 2020, the AFT and NEA, along with the National Parent Teacher Association, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, issued a joint statement emphasizing the need for community collaboration.


To safely reopen our schools, health experts should be relied on to figure out the when’ and educators and parents should be central to figuring out the ‘how,’” the statement reads. “Public school educators, students and parents must have a voice in critical conversations and decisions on reopening schools.”


Those of us who are directly impacted by decisions should be at the center of making those decisions,” says Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel (SAA). By including parents, students and community members in the conversations around planning, school districts can ensure they hear all voices and all concerns that would impact a return to school. 


Both Unions Lobby for Funding So Schools Can Invest in Safety


An important element in the back-to-school reopening conversation is funding. The health and safety measures that will need to be implemented before schools reopen are going to cost money — money that many schools don’t have.


Districts are looking at significant cuts in their budget and wondering where the money will come from,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association (AASA). 


They’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and the biggest fear is they’re going to be forced to open schools without the safety guidelines.”

A joint analysis by the AASA and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International shows that the average school district can expect to spend nearly $1.8 million to reopen its schools. 


To help school districts get the funding they need, the AFT and NEA are lobbying for the Senate to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which has already passed in the House of Representatives. The bill contains about $100 billion for education. 


There are no magic fixes—the only path to recovery is a stimulus package that funds, rather than forfeits, our future,” says Weingarten. “We urgently need the federal dollars included in the HEROES Act to help states, cities, towns and schools weather this rolling storm.”


Funding has fallen off a cliff,” says Eskelsen García. “We want to open schools, but we cannot bring students back to the classroom if we don’t get the support from the Senate to do it safely and to make sure they have what they need to succeed.”


There’s no denying that this is a stressful time for everyone involved in trying to solve the problem of safely reopening schools. The AFT and the NEA are focused on ensuring the teachers have their say in back-to-school planning. UnionTrack ENGAGE is the perfect tool for those unions’ leaders to stay engaged with members as they continue these efforts.