Teachers Union Authorizes Strikes Over School Reopening Plans

The American Federation of Teachers approved a resolution giving affiliate chapters permission to strike as “a last resort” should certain conditions for reopening not be met.

The American Federation of Teachers approved a resolution giving affiliate chapters permission to strike as “a last resort” should certain conditions for reopening not be met. Shutterstock

 

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One of the nation’s largest teachers unions gave its members the green light to strike if school reopening plans make them feel unsafe.

One of the nation’s largest teachers unions told its 1.7 million members they have permission to go on "safety strikes" if schools' reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic will jeopardize the health of teachers or students. 

The American Federation of Teachers approved a resolution giving affiliate chapters permission to strike as “a last resort” should certain conditions for reopening not be met. Affiliate chapters are mostly made up of teachers, but also include aides, school nurses and other teaching professionals. 

The AFT wants to see schools only reopen classrooms for in-person teaching in areas with low numbers of positive cases. In order to properly open, the union says officials need to enforce social distancing, put in place plans for contact tracing, update building ventilation systems, require masks for all students and staff, and provide additional accommodations to staff who are at high risk for complications should they catch the coronavirus. 

In making the announcement during their annual convention, which was held virtually on Tuesday, the AFT agreed to provide legal and financial support to striking local chapters. 

AFT President Randi Weingarten said that “nothing is off the table” if federal and state authorities don’t create comprehensive plans for reopening schools safely and provide school districts with the funding to implement those plans. “Let’s be clear: Just as we have done with our health-care workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators,” she said. 

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been adamant about schools fully reopening for in-person learning this fall, although many state and local education leaders have been reluctant to press forward, particularly in places where case counts rose this summer. 

Still, congressional Republicans also seem to be encouraging schools to restart as usual by tying federal funding to the status of in-person education. Their latest trillion dollar coronavirus relief package introduced on Monday night includes $70 billion in funding for K-12 schools; about $46 billion of that, or roughly two-thirds, is earmarked for schools that are reopening for in-person instruction. 

These plans were blasted at the AFT conference, with Weingarten saying that the funds “should have been distributed to communities months ago” and that federal leaders have “no plan” as they insist schools should reopen. 

The Council of Chief State School Officers, in a June letter to Congress, estimated that schools would need between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion to safely reopen their buildings to students while also improving virtual learning options for students who stay home, especially those who lack stable broadband access and computers. 

“When the next academic year begins, schools will reopen in a completely new environment, one that will necessitate significant additional costs to safely resume effective instruction,” the letter reads. “While the amount of federal funding that is necessary to successfully and safely reopen schools and keep K-12 education budgets whole in the coming year is substantial, it is an essential investment in the nation’s ongoing economic recovery and future competitiveness.”

Faced with the high cost of implementing in-person safety measures and with cases rising across the southern and western United States, several of the nation’s largest public school systems, including Los Angeles and Atlanta, have already decided to take an all-virtual approach at the start of the new school year.

In other areas of the country, teachers are fighting back against in-person reopening plans. Florida’s teachers union, with the support of the AFT and the National Education Association, sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his executive order requiring schools to open five days a week, arguing that the order violates a measure in the state constitution that guarantees lawsuit a “safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”

The NEA, which is the country’s largest teachers union, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that it will do “whatever it takes” to protect students.

“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,” said the group’s president, Lily Eskelsen García.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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