Weingarten: Post-pandemic schools should retool education
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, talks during a news conference. | Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

WASHINGTON—The coronavirus pandemic-forced school closures, and upcoming reopening of all public schools this fall, are a massive opportunity to reimagine and retool public education so it serves all kids and gives teachers and staff the support and respect they deserve.

So said Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten in a comprehensive hour-long speech on May 13 via Zoom and the union’s Facebook page.

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” she declared.

Federal data, Weingarten reported, shows 97% of all schools have reopened fully or partially, and continued vaccination of the rest of the U.S. is the key to full back-to-school efforts in buildings.

Partially opened schools are those that have teachers instructing students both in classrooms and via Zoom, leaving teachers frazzled and with heavier workloads, parents harried and forced to quit jobs to monitor their kids lessons, reduced learning by kids and no social interaction or support services.

The nation must reopen the schools “fully and safely, five days a week,” Weingarten said. She presented a 10-point plan, available on AFT’s website, to do so. And it includes not just reimaging and retooling schools and learning themselves but also what schools can do for kids, parents and communities—from lunches to mental health counseling.

A poll AFT commissioned, released the day before, showed overwhelming majorities of parents—white, Black, Spanish-speaking and Asian-Americans—also want schools fully reopened, but only with proper safeguards to prevent recurring spread of the coronavirus, officially called Covid-19. Weingarten strongly made that point in her address, too.

The parents also overwhelmingly supported teachers’ stands for allotting more money to in-person learning, using it for support services as well, giving teachers more freedom to teach and encourage the students to learn by experimenting and doing, and targeting money to community-based schools, among other goals.

Weingarten said reimagined post-pandemic schools should have all those characteristics—and be physically safe for the students, teachers, parents and staff, too.

“Educators have yearned to be back in school, with their students,” said Weingarten, a New York City high school civics teacher. “They only asked for two things: A safe workplace during this pandemic and the resources they and their students need to succeed.”

She then touted President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act and follow-up legislation Biden is proposing as providing the needed money. That was in contrast to Biden’s predecessor, GOPer Donald Trump, who pushed for too-quick school reopenings, and provided little aid for cash-strapped school districts, she noted.

Left unsaid was when Congress overrode Trump and provided funds for public schools, his Education Secretary, union- teacher- and public-school hater Betsy DeVos, tried to divert billions to private schools.

“We must do far more than physically return to schools, as important as that is to create the normalcy we crave,” Weingarten declared. She compared the opportunity to reimagine and retool schools to the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century in New York City and the Renaissance which followed the Middle Ages in Europe.

But such a school renaissance can only occur if the schools are safe, and that was one stumbling block the poll revealed. There’s a slim majority support for returning to in-person learning, but the figure soared to 80% or more among all groups, including teachers, once they’re assured schools are safe.

That means implementing mask-wearing, physical distancing, reduced class sizes, vaccinations and other anti-virus measures. And 89% of the teachers surveyed reported being vaccinated against Covid-19, or appointments to be vaccinated.

A school renaissance doesn’t mean “teach to the test” or concentrating on just the Three Rs while tossing music, art, civics education and other subjects out the window, Weingarten warned. All those and more can be vital parts of teaching students to be creative and think for themselves, rather than learn by rote.

“We must put in place the supports to help students recover—-socially, emotionally and academically. And we must reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passion, builds confidence, nurtures critical thinking and brings learning to life-—so all children have access to the opportunities that give them the freedom to thrive.”

To help implement the plan, Weingarten said AFT would expand its normal “Back to school” pre-re-opening drive, usually focused on reorienting students, to focusing on kids, parents, teachers and the community.

Its $5 million “Back to School for Everyone” national campaign would “connect not just with teachers and school staff but also with families and communities to communicate the importance of in-school learning and build families’ trust and confidence in children returning to school,” she said. Another point envisions joint committees of parents, teachers, administrators and, where appropriate, students, rethinking what schools look like and should do.

The poll, while showing overwhelming support for other elements Weingarten outlined, had one other outlying number, on cops in schools. There was a 50-50 split, with Black parents 60% opposed and 40% in favor, other people of color slightly opposed and whites in favor.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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