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AFT President says different classroom COVID protocols is creating a "tale of two countries"

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, talks about school mask and vaccine mandates, and the burdens facing teachers during the pandemic.

Video Transcript

- Back to schools is in full swing. Students have been back in the classroom for already a couple of months now. School districts nationwide, they have implemented COVID protocols in order to try and keep the children safe, with some implementing vaccine mandates for teachers. So we want to talk about how the school year is progressing. And for that, we want to bring in Randi Weingarten the president of the American Federation of teachers. And Randi, it's good to see you again. I know that you've been on the move since the start of the school year. You've been visiting as school districts throughout the country. You visited more than 20 states already. From your assessment, how is this school year progressing?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So it's kind of a tale of two countries here. But let me just actually talk about the schools themselves, which is teachers have done an amazing job. I mean, they're just heroic. And they know that kids need to be in school. We know we needed to have the kind of basic layered mitigation of mask, ventilation, as many people as possible getting vaccinated, and then have a good outbreak process-- quarantine testing outbreak process. And the places that did that and have kind of worked together with administration, and teachers, and community have actually had a pretty good opening of school and have dealt with, whenever there's an outbreak, dealt with it pretty well.

And you see that, frankly, throughout most of California. You see that through a lot of places in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts. And then you get to the South, where there's been really heroic work done by superintendents, and school boards, and teachers to keep kids safe and to get back to school. But the politics have been crazy. And you see that in terms of what's going on in school board meetings. I didn't know that a mask would be this kind of a culture war when it is really there just to make sure-- particularly since younger kids still can't get vaccinated-- to try to stop the transmission of still a very dangerous virus.

But the schools themselves, people are really trying-- I was with all of our union reps in Florida yesterday. And people are really trying because they know kids really need school. But people are also really frustrated, and anxious, and wondering what happened to our country that we're not all in this together to try to help our kids and create a welcoming, safe environment. So basically, we're open. But lots of agita.

- There certainly is. And Randi, you mentioned the battles over mask wearing in schools. I guess, to what extent do you think that that has disrupted children's learning so far this year? Because I agree with you. I was a little bit taken aback as to how big of an issue it has become in not only in some of the teacher meetings, but also what we're seeing play out in some of the parent-teacher meetings as well.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: For teachers, we are representative of America. Teachers, nurses, the people that I represent. But vast majorities, like 2/3 of the people who are our membership, believe in the vaccine mandates and believe in the mask mandates because the North Star for us is keeping everybody safe. And I say this often. You've heard me say this. I'm an asthmatic. I know it's hard to breathe in a mask. I've gone through a lot of different masks to figure out what's most comfortable for me.

And it's not comfortable teaching in a mask. It's better if you can see people's lips. Like, now that I'm not with anyone, I can do that with you. You can see my lips. I can see your lips. We can use our body language. All of that is right. None of us really like the mask. But we wear to keep people safe. And I think that the disinformation and the exacerbation or exploitation of the anger, and the agita, and the anxiety of COVID is to blame for this.

And just like the Facebook algorithms were attempting to keep people angry, no, there's a right wing, very wealthy group of people that are trying to drive people to be really angry at each other. Steve Bannon has made no secret of that. The Uihlein family. Others. And, frankly, I find it disgusting. It's not about ideology. It's about, what are we going to do to make sure in a year that we have our kids have to recover how to keep everybody safe and how to create a welcoming and safe environment?

- And Randi, certainly so many teachers have been so helpful this school year. But there are some teachers that have been resistant, specifically just look at what's going on in New York City. And some teachers are refusing to get the vaccine. I'm curious. What have some of your conversations been like with those teachers? And what would your message be to them today?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, look. I think it-- and I've said to-- I'm very pro-vaccine. I think vaccines are part of our lives. I think that's the science has made it clear. Many of us when we were kids had a polio vaccine, smallpox vaccines, measles. These are all part of our lives. And employers, because of safety-- we're driven by safety. The employers who have instituted vaccine mandates are doing it because it's about keeping everybody safe. And they can make it a condition of employment. And I actually really believe it's important to be honest with your members.

But we also have to have a voice in that implementation. And New York City, Michael Mulgrew in an arbitration, did a fantastic job in terms of creating pathways for people so that if they didn't have a medical or a religious exemption and they still didn't want a vaccine for whatever reasons, you know, they don't believe in it, then they had an unpaid leave with health care for a year. They have time to make a different decision. They can take that time. And they will still have a job up to a year later. The people who don't want it-- I know there's a lot of anger. And I just in love and in just really gratitude to everyone, it's like, look, this is what we need to do to keep people safe. This is what the science is. And I'm very angry at the misinformation and disinformation that has made people really fearful.

- And Randi, before we let you go, I also just want to get your thoughts on-- I know the AFT just reached a settlement with the US Department of Education on a suit that was filed back-- actually, almost two years ago, back in 2019, to hold the federal government accountable for how it managed the Public Service's Loan Forgiveness program. Tell us about this and I guess what happens next.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So look. This is like the great news of the week, which is that anyone-- and this is for any of your listeners-- worked in public service, paid their loans for 10 years, they found out that the promise that George Bush made, and Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and others who pushed this loan forgiveness program. You work for public service for 10 years. You pay your loans for 10 years. The rest of your loans are forgiven.

By the time the first year happened, 2017, law was passed in 2007, 98% of people didn't get their loans forgiven. So something was really wrong. Botched implementation of this PSLF program. We tried to convince Betsy DeVos to change it, to do the changes bureaucratically that she could have done, that Miguel Cardona just did. And she wouldn't do it. And so many people have had huge student debt that they shouldn't have. So Miguel Cardona just changed some of the rules administratively like we knew could happen. And then we settled this lawsuit, which means that everyone who's been denied what should be theirs is now going to have reconsideration.

It's going to mean thousands of people are not going to have the burden of crushing student debt anymore because of the promise that was made in 2007. And now that promise will be fulfilled. So it is a great day for a whole lot of people. Could be thousands. It could be hundreds of thousands. But the eight name plaintiffs, they have collectively $400,000 of debt that is being extinguished because of the promise that was made that they paid for 10 years, the rest of it would be forgiven.

- Certainly good news for so many people out there. Randi Weingarten. Always great to have you. Thanks so much for joining us today. We hope you have a great week. The president of the American Federation of Teachers.