“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,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told delegates in a keynote speech. “But if the authorities don’t get it right, and they don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, nothing is off the table — not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary as a last resort, safety strikes.”
The American Federation of Teachers represents 1.7 million members and is the nation’s largest teacher union. Seventy-six percent of the union’s members were reportedly open to returning to physical classrooms “before the virus’ resurgence,” according to Weingarten, but its members are now questioning whether they should return so soon or at all while safeguards are in doubt.
In the U.S., more than 4.4 million Americans have been infected by the novel coronavirus, according to data from the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, which has been keeping track of the pandemic since late January.
More than 150,645 people in the U.S. have lost their lives to the respiratory illness at the time of publication, data shows.
The rising numbers have pushed the union to update its “Reopening School Buildings Safely” plan, which outlines conditions it deems necessary for safe operation, including building reopenings in areas that have low infection rates and access to testing, safety protocols for minimizing the spread of the virus, as well as resources and funding to support the inititiatives.
It would reportedly take hundreds of billions of dollars to satisfy these conditions, according to Weingarten.
President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have urged schools to follow through with reopening plans in recent weeks.
"Every district should be actively making preparations to open," Trump stated in a press conference Thursday. "This is about something very, very important. This is not about politics."
However, the American Federation of Teachers characterized those statements as “virus denialism” and went as far as to write that Trump and DeVos “waged a weekslong campaign to force reopening with threats and bluster.”
The union is providing legal and financial resources for local chapters that may choose to strike, and even has a coronavirus-related legal guide published for members who want to know their rights during a public health emergency.
Additionally, the union has 12 published coronavirus resources for helping teachers and parents navigate online learning.
Fixty-six percent of parents with children enrolled in a K-12 school have said they would prefer schooling to be done in-person this fall, according to a Gallup Panel survey conducted between May 25 and June 8. Thirty-seven percent said they would prefer a hybrid learning environment that puts kids back in the classroom for part of the time, while 7 percent said they prefer distanced learning full-time.