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President of Key Teachers’ Union Shares Plea: ‘Schools Must Be Open’ in Fall

Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, plans to call on Thursday for a full reopening of the nation’s schools for the next academic year, saying: “There is no doubt: Schools must be open. In person. Five days a week.”

Her prepared remarks, made available to The New York Times, come with about half of the nation’s public schools not offering five days per week of in-person learning to all students and with many families uncertain about whether they will have the option for a more traditional schedule in the fall.

Teachers’ unions have been one key barrier to a broader opening this school year, accused of slowing reopening timelines as they sought strict virus mitigation measures, even after teachers began to be vaccinated in large numbers.

“It’s not risk-free,” Ms. Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, plans to say, according to the remarks. She is expected to argue that the health risks can be managed through a range of practices — some of them relatively simple, such as masking and handwashing, and some of them more difficult to achieve at scale, such as decreasing class sizes to maintain distance and procuring additional spaces to meet outside cramped school buildings.

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” Ms. Weingarten, a close ally of President Biden, plans to say, pledging to commit $5 million for a campaign in which teachers will host open houses and go door to door to build families’ confidence in returning to school.

Ms. Weingarten’s speech is sure to be greeted skeptically by some parents and school district leaders, who have been frustrated by some local unions’ insistence on two-hour school days — so students will not need to remove masks to eat lunch — or ambitious ventilation system overhauls instead of simpler solutions, such as fans and open windows.

Some local unions have argued that because so many families, particularly Black, Hispanic and Asian families, continue to opt out of in-person learning, returning to classrooms is less important than improving remote learning.

But in her speech, which will be delivered remotely via social media, Ms. Weingarten plans to acknowledge that “prolonged isolation is harmful” to students and that online instruction has negatively affected learning. She will say that reopening schools increases both teachers’ and parents’ comfort with returning, and that many parents, particularly mothers, are unable to work when school schedules are truncated.

Still, Ms. Weingarten’s new proposal, if fully adopted by local unions, may not do away with all the barriers to full-time, in-person instruction. Even with a vaccine approved for adolescents 12 and over, she foresees the need to continue to distance students three feet apart, which she said would require some school systems to find additional space outside their buildings.

In an interview, Ms. Weingarten emphasized unknowns about the progression of the pandemic, arguing that mitigation measures would need to continue next school year. That is disputed by some virus experts, who have said it may be possible to do away with masking and distancing in schools in the near future.

“We don’t actually know — will adults need a booster shot because of the variants? How many kids will get the vaccines? When will vaccines be available for kids under 12? There are all of these questions,” Ms. Weingarten said, adding, “But these questions can’t stop us from reopening fully.”

The idea of distancing students by using space outside schools was first proposed by virus experts and parent activists last summer, but it presents myriad logistical challenges. Ms. Weingarten said districts could secure extra space with federal stimulus money, and suggested using empty storefronts, empty offices, portable classroom trailers or tents.

Her speech will also call for lower class sizes, which could mean hiring additional educators. That is a perennial priority for teachers’ unions that would make it easier to keep students physically distanced. Smaller classes could also potentially allow teachers to provide more individual support to tens of millions of children who will need to process — academically, socially and emotionally — the fallout from more than a year of a pandemic, an economic crisis and a national reckoning on racism.

Ms. Weingarten said that with 89 percent of her members vaccinated or willing to be, she anticipates fewer teachers needing medical accommodations to work from home next school year. In some cities, the large percentage of teachers who were granted medical accommodations before vaccines were available has meant that students returning to classrooms this spring were asked to log into laptops to interact with educators who were elsewhere, a practice known derisively as “Zoom in a room.”

The speech also proposes a number of ideas for helping children to recover from the pandemic, such as summer school, tutoring, longer school days, hiring additional mental health professionals, diversifying the teacher force and enriching the curriculum with subjects like science and civics.

The debate over reopening schools has been toxic in many communities, pitting some parents and educators against one another. It has also highlighted the fact that while white and affluent parents often see public schools as a safe haven for their children, other families are less eager to entrust their children to schools during a health crisis.

Jennifer Noonan, an Oregon parent of four children whose schools are operating part time, has been a critic of the unions and an activist in the movement to reopen schools. After reaching out to Ms. Weingarten via Twitter, she participated in an online meeting in which the union president met with frustrated parents to hear their concerns.

“I would’ve liked to see this sooner. But I’m optimistic,” Ms. Noonan said. She gave Ms. Weingarten credit for “viewing parent groups as equal stakeholders in the same regard that teachers’ unions are held.”

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