Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said on Sunday that she needed to "debunk" the myth that teachers unions don’t want to reopen schools and took a swipe at California Gov. Gavin Newsom for failing to prioritize vaccines in Los Angeles -- but dodged on to whether students would be able to fully resume in-person instruction this school year.
"I do want to debunk this myth that teacher unions, at least our union, doesn’t want to reopen schools," Weingarten told NBC News’ "Meet the Press." "Teachers know that in person education is really important and we would have said that pre-pandemic. We knew that remote education is not a good substitute."
"Is this school year probably not going to have full school openings?" NBC News’ Chuck Todd asked.
"What does full school opening mean? If you do six-feet of physical distancing, you’re essentially saying in a school you’re going to have about 50 or 60% of people in there at any one time. Not 100%," Weingarten responded. "The issue really becomes, do we have 30% more space, do we have 30% more teachers. What I think we need to do, we need to actually get as much in-person as possible right now. Have the mitigation strategies, have a real great summer semester to get kids’ mojo back in a voluntary way and then really be planning for next year."
President Biden has repeatedly vowed to open the majority of K-8 schools by his 100th day in office, April 30. But new guidance on school reopening released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday might delay the return to in-person instruction even further. Using the latest science and data available on COVID-19, the operational strategy for phased mitigation includes guidance on masking, physical distancing, hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, ventilation and building cleaning and contact tracing.
Critics have accused the White House to caving to pressure from teachers unions and pushing the CDC to manipluate its advice.
"You can see, as the unions have stepped up and said they don’t want in-classroom learning, you’ve seen White House pressure the CDC to reverse guidance that was very clear," Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said in an interview with ABC News' "This Week" on Sunday.
"Our kids can’t wait," Scalise said. "They need to be in the classroom today. The science says they can be in the classroom today. The question is, is the will there for some politicians in Washington who are bowing to the teachers unions right now?"
Weingarten said the latest guidance from the CDC and resources Biden is trying to get in the $1.9 trillion package create a "roadmap" for defining risks that come down to three factors: layered mitigation strategies, testing to track asymptomatic spread and vaccine prioritization.
"There's a roadmap now, and so you actually can follow that roadmap in terms of defining those risks," Weingarten said in an interview with NBC anchor Chuck Todd. "Not that every single teacher has to be vaccinated before you open any schools, but you should align the vaccine prioritization with the reopening of schools."
The leader of one of America's largest teachers' unions, Weingarten said New York City, home to the country's largest public school system, has set a positive example for the rest of America to follow.
"There's no perfect solution, but frankly I think that New York City has done a pretty good job as far as showing the way. Big school district. Lots of issues in terms of old buildings and we learned a lot from what New York City did in September and October," Weingarten said.
Weingarten said a recent survey showed that 85% of her members would be comfortable in school if they had the kind of testing, layered mitigation and vaccine prioritization like New York City is doing.
She also praised Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, who, "actually made sure that every teacher and school employee that wanted the vaccine had gotten vaccinated in the last few weeks." Reopening plans executed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, were also commended by Weingarten, who then took aim at how Newsom was handling pandemic response in California.
"When I hear politicians, when I hear Gov. Newsom saying you're always going to find a way out, well why is he not actually prioritizing the teachers in LA where they have been in purple, purple zone – no in red zone?" Weingarten said.
"I think the issue is that if the NFL could figure out how to do this, in terms of testing and the protocols, if schools are that important, let’s do it. And my members want it, they just want to be safe."
"You find whatever you look for, so if we want to find reasons not to reopen, we’ll find plenty of reasons. But if we want to start building our ways to strategize and ways to getting where we all want to go, we’ll figure that out as well," Newsom said in a recent interview.
Asked if she supported local teachers unions, including that in Fairfax, Va., which doesn’t want a return to in-person instruction until all children are vaccinated, Weingarten said, "teachers unions are not monolithic."
"What you’re hearing when you hear that is that people are scared. We have to meet fear with facts, which is what we’re trying to do. So we’ve had Dr. Fauci for example on two town halls," Weingarten said. "We’ve had a vaccine town hall with experts about that, and so just like we are meeting vaccine hesitancy with facts and evidence and the data, we need to do the same in terms of educators. What we’ve learned in our polling and also in our experience is that when people are actually in school with the protocols in place, they trust it more and then you just had to educate people in terms of this way."
Weingarten said 71% of her members are fearful that they’ll bring COVID-19 home.
"Look we’ve had 500,000 deaths and had such grim realities here but the teachers of this country understand that in-person education is really important, so ultimately, let’s do the kind of strategies we need."
Fox News’ Evie Fordham contributed to this report.