Teachers could go out on strike “as a last resort” if they are forced to return to unsafe schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten warned Tuesday.
The executive council of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers approved a resolution Friday giving AFT affiliates across the country authorization to stage strikes—even as President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing schools to fully reopen even though school district leaders say they need massive federal funding to do so safely.
Weingarten gave a blistering speech at the organization’s annual convention, being held virtually this year, saying that Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic “has been chaotic and catastrophic,” and that DeVos has “zero credibility.”
“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. “But if authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”
School districts have been warning for months that they can’t reopen fully without billions of dollars in emergency federal funding. Congress included more than $13.5 billion for K-12 schools in its $2 trillion coronavirus emergency funding legislation that passed in March, but education leaders say that doesn’t come close to covering the cost of reopening schools with the added costs of COVID-19 protective measures.
A Democratic-led House bill passed recently calls for $58 billion in new funding for public K-12 schools – and the Republican majority in the Senate just released its plan for new pandemic spending, offering $70 billion for public and private schools. But two-thirds of that amount is linked to a mandate—sought by Trump and DeVos—that schools open their buildings to students. Such a linkage is opposed by Democrats.
Weingarten said 76% of her union’s members, polled last month, said they would return to a school building if there were appropriate safeguards – and districts say they need far more than Congress is proposing to do that.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit organization that represents public officials who head state departments of elementary and secondary education, sent a letter to Congress estimating that the cost of safely reopening schools this fall is estimated to be between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion.
The AFT said in its resolution that it had calculated that roughly $400 billion is needed in federal funds to meet the needs of families and to ensure that schools and colleges are funded.
Some small districts in Tennessee, Mississippi and other states have started the school year, with in-person learning, but major school districts have opted to start online because of spiking COVID-19 rates.
Weingarten noted that Trump canceled the Republican presidential convention that was to be held in August in Jacksonville, Fla., because of skyrocketing COVID-19 rates in that state – but still insists that schools there open. Florida’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, a Trump supporter, has also called for schools to reopen five days a week for all students, but some districts in southern Florida, where COVID-19 rates are the highest in the world, are making their own decisions.
“What hypocrisy, to cancel the GOP convention in Jacksonville, Fla., because of the risks to GOP delegates gathering in that coronavirus hot spot, yet in the same breath demand that children and teachers gather in schools in that same hot spot,” Weingarten said in her speech.
The resolution, approved by AFT leadership, says in part:
“RESOLVED, that in the fight to ensure the safety and health of American Federation of Teachers’ members, our students and our communities, we will use every action and tool available to us from serving on state and local reopening committees to filing grievances, lawsuits and other actions against unsafe and unsound plans or the faulty implementation of plans. Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort . . .”
The education world was rocked by an unprecedented stretch of strikes and protests by teachers across the country that began in February 2018. That’s when teachers in West Virginia, where it is illegal for teachers to strike, walked out anyway, seeking a pay increase, help with high health-care costs and more school funding. That began the “Red for Ed” movement, in which teachers in Republican-led states went on strike for issues including low pay and health benefits and insufficient school funding. Teachers in Democratic-led states joined in too.