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AFT President: 'What Biden did was what DeVos and Trump failed to do'

AFT President Randi Weingarten joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how schools are preparing to bring students back amid reopening difficulties.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Roughly 90% of public schools across the country are now back to in-person classes in some form, but just over half are fully operational. With concerns about safety, as well as no vaccines available for young kids, a lot of parents still opting to keep their kids at home.

Let's bring in Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. And we should point out, AFT, of course, representative of 1.7 million teachers across the country. Randi, it's good to talk to you today. What are you hearing from your teachers right now in terms of how smooth the transition has been and what concerns they have as they look to go to 100%?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Right. So let me just say, we represent educators and nurses. Today is Nurse Appreciation Day. And we've had-- we represent about 200,000 nurses and health care practitioners who've worked all throughout COVID in hospitals caring for all of us. So I just want to shout them out as I answer your question.

But the-- you know, I think-- I've been to six, I think, schools that have been reopened for in-person learning in the last month, and this is what you see. Those people who are back in school and have actually gone through the safety routines and have gotten vaccinated, you see tremendous joy. You see joy with the kids. You see joy with educators and a sense with every passing day where there are these kind of protocols and people are safe, it creates more confidence.

We got to do the same thing now in terms of parents, particularly Black and brown parents, because you see a big difference between white parents who were more confident that schools could keep their kids safe and are sending their kids back, and Black and brown parents, like in New York, or Chicago, where-- where they have been more reluctant. So we have to actually create the kind of trust that we've created with our own members and make back to school back to school for everyone this fall.

I'm very bullish on it, as you can hear. I think the new-- the Biden administration has been a game changer in terms of really using safety to reopen, having vaccine access and testing access. And I think now with the news from Pfizer that there's going to be vaccine access for kids 12 to 16, that's going to be a real-- no pun intended-- shot in the arm for normalcy.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, Randi, first off, Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. I got some teachers who are friends out there, too, so we'll shout that out. It's interesting to see, I think, some conservatives out there taking issue with the discussions that you and AFT had with the CDC and kind of trying to frame the back-to-school guidelines and the framework there. And I know these things have to happen when we're thinking about reopening and getting-- you know, teachers on union can't go back to school without the teachers feeling comfortable. What's your reaction to seeing that play out now as they kind of claim that politics was involved in reopening plans?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: It's just-- it's-- look, I mean, I understand what they're doing, which is that they did virtually nothing. They just supported Donald Trump when he was completely reckless in all of these things during, you know, 2020. But safety is the way you reopen schools. And what the CDC-- this is a big secret, what the CDC did in 2021 is exactly what the career scientists at CDC were trying to do in 2020.

We had more conversations with the career scientists at CDC in 2020 than we've had with the CDC in 2021. The problem was Betsy-the-boss wouldn't give us guidance. The White House wouldn't do guidance. The president-- President Trump wouldn't do resources. And-- and this is the thing about me. What I say privately, I say publicly.

We-- since last April in 2020, you have had me on forever, talked about what we needed to do to get schools reopened. And what the CDC tries to do is the impact of their guidance is on parents, on students, and on educators. So what that agency wants to do, which, frankly, every public agency should want to do, is they want to figure out what is the impact.

AKIKO FUJITA: But Randi, if I can-- if I can lay out the allegations here, it is that-- specifically that the CDC didn't necessarily follow the science, which has suggested that transmission in schools are low, and that AFT helped influence the policy, and therefore got some provisions added into the policy. So the overarching question here-- I mean, to what extent did AFT influence the policy that came out from the CDC?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So let's-- let's start here. The AFT initially was very concerned about the CDC when they moved to having three feet of spacing as opposed to six feet. So it's completely false about whether or not we influenced the science. What we did was we talked about the impact of evolving science on our members, just like we did with Dr. Fauci in town halls, just like we've done with Dr. Redlener and others in town halls.

And that's what we did each and every time. We are not-- I am not a scientist. I need to listen to the scientists. And the email that the right wing is using, the email was about how you make sure you have accommodations for those who are caring for people who are high risk so that--

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: --we didn't have more people leave our profession. And they said in that phone call, oh, that's a good idea. Could you give us some ideas about how to write that? So that's the email that-- that Fox and "New York Post" is looking at.

And frankly, all these different agencies, they should be asking people who are really impacted what is the result of-- of what we would do? And I think that that's perfectly fine. What I would wish the right wing would do is instead of having all their K Street lobbyists do this secretly behind closed doors, let them do it in the way in which the CDC is doing it right now.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and we've heard the White House push back, too, saying that this isn't out of the norm to work with-- with unions such as yours to kind of implement some of these things or ask questions about how it should be implemented. And I would say, as someone who is not a teacher, doesn't have children at school here, looking at it objectively, but if you're looking at this as a business negotiation where you represent the labor there and teachers aren't comfortable coming back into the, quote unquote, "office" here, whether or not the science says what it says, I mean, there is some sort of buy-in that you'd have to get. And I would imagine there could have been a bigger problem, to your point, if you just had teachers quitting in mass or striking here--

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Exactly right.

ZACK GUZMAN: --and not feeling comfortable. What would have-- what would the alternative have looked like if you didn't kind of consult here to discuss these plans?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, you saw what the alternative would look like, because DeVos and Trump did the alternative in September. There was complete confusion. We begged the DeVos Education Department, we begged Donald Trump, we did this publicly as well as privately, we put the-- our plan about how to reopen school out last April 2020, but you saw what happened.

Look at the difference between what's happened since Biden has been president versus what happened when Trump was president. More schools have reopened. There's more confidence about that. There's more resources about that. So you see it. What they did-- what Biden did was what Trump and DeVos failed to do, which is to use science and safety as the pathway to reopen and to create the trust with the front line workforce that has to get this work done.