Teachers union: ‘Scream bloody murder’ if schools reopen against medical advice

Teachers are united after more than two years of strikes for more state funding and they have “tremendous power” as advocates for children’s safety, said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. She didn’t rule out strikes if state leaders move prematurely on a reopening of schools, and she said she believes parents would protest too.

“You put all things on the table when it comes to student safety,” Eskelsen García said. “And … I don’t think we’ll be alone.”

Teachers are preparing for the possibility of staggered class times, temperature taking, physical distancing and other measures that will create an unrecognizable K-12 classroom experience for students when schools eventually reopen.

Governors in some states have already lifted some restrictions on small businesses like hair salons and elective surgeries. But the eventual reopening of schools will represent a major step, driving a return to normal life — or at least a new normal — perhaps unlike anything else. President Donald Trump said Monday that governors are preparing to reopen shuttered school systems, without citing specific states.

No large scale reopening is on the immediate horizon. Schools in most states have been ordered to stay closed the rest of the year or strongly urged to do so. Trump’s three-phased plan for reopening the economy calls for reopening schools, at governors’ discretion, after about a month of declines in cases along with other criteria. “You’re seeing a lot of governors get out and they want to open it up,” the president said when asked for his advice to state leaders who are weighing an economic restart.

“Many are thinking about their school system. Not a long way to go in the school system right now for this season, for this year. But I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up, even if it’s for a very short period of time,” Trump said.

Absent a vaccine, Weingarten said it’s important to proceed in a safe and coordinated way “so that people feel that they’re all in.” AFT’s plan is informed by countries that have cautiously reopened classrooms, including Denmark, Norway and Germany, she said.

The union in its reopening plan will encourage its affiliates to lobby districts for five conditions before opening schools: a decline in cases over 14 days; adequate testing, tracing and isolation; public health measures like temperature taking, cleaning protocols, personal protective equipment and physical distancing measures such as staggered school times; transparency and fidelity to safety measures and enforcement; and increased funding to implement the host of changes.

Already, AFT’s affiliate in New York City, United Federation of Teachers, laid down a marker, launching a petition calling for widespread testing, temperature checks, rigorous cleaning and protective gear in every school and exhaustive tracing procedures as conditions for reopening schools.

“In places where there’s a strong commitment to worker voice, we’re going to get that and in places where there isn’t, we’re going to have to use all sorts of other vehicles, or what’s going to happen is the virus will reemerge,” Weingarten said.

Eskelsen García said NEA is connecting thousands of members so they can share ideas.

Some are raising questions about what it will take to reopen, such as how you social distance in overcrowded classrooms, she said. Do they use the gym or lunch room to spread out? Nearby buildings? Do they have or need protective gear?

Some say reopening will require a lot more time from teachers and support staff, but that can’t come free.

“There will probably be some instances where we will have to look at renegotiating contracts for teachers who may be asked to do some pretty heroic things to get those schools open,” she said.

State and local leaders have already butted heads with unions during the shift to remote learning. In California, disagreements cropped up over issues like grading and student access to computers. The Chicago Teachers Union clashed with Chicago Public Schools over its decision to send home third quarter report cards. In South Bend, Ind., the local NEA affiliate filed a complaint with the state accusing the South Bend Community School Corp. of unfair labor practices, the South Bend Tribune reported.

“The safety of students, teachers and staff is chiefs’ top concern when deciding when and how to reopen school buildings. New precautions will be required to do so safely, and teachers will be an important partner in making those decisions,” said Carolyn Phenicie, spokesperson for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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