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‘There are no good choices’ in the middle of a pandemic: Randi Weingarten

With everyone worrying over the resurgence of coronavirus, schools have been trying to develop the best system to provide the most supportive, safe, and fulfilling educational environment. Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers President, joins The Final Round to discuss the education system as it adapts to the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SEANA SMITH: Welcome to our latest weekly special on education and what's next for America's schools. I'm Seana Smith. Well, school districts across the country are navigating the reopening process amid the coronavirus pandemic, pushing ahead with online, hybrid, or in-person learning. So for the next 30 minutes, along with my co-hosts Jen Rogers and Myles Udland, we'll be taking a look at what's been working, what's not working, and the challenges that lie ahead for students, teachers, and-- and administrators from K through 12 all the way through higher education.

So for more on that, we want to bring in our first guest with Randi Weingarten. She's the president of the American Federation of Teachers. And, Randi, it's great to have you on the program. We know many schools are back in session. They have resumed classes over the last couple of weeks, whether that be virtually or a hybrid model or in-person classes. But from a teacher's perspective, how has it been going so far?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So let me just start by saying, there is no good choices in the middle of a pandemic. And thankfully, we're starting to see a little bit of a lull, or we did in the last couple of weeks. Although, the numbers are starting to go up again. And the most important lesson to know is that we're still in the middle of a pandemic, and masks and physical distancing are an absolute must.

So what's happened is that the-- the places that had the most hotspots still right now are still on remote thinking about a gradual return to hybrid probably in October. And that the other places in the country, basically suburban-- so 70 of the 100 largest school districts are still exclusively on remote. New York City is going to do a very big experiment this week. It started with special needs kids last week. New York City, Boston are doing this kind of gradual going to a hybrid situation.

What we're seeing is that there's lots of issues in terms of remote education. There's lots of issues with kids not having access to technology. There is some stupidity that's going on in terms of how teachers are being used in a hybrid situation. The best hybrids are when the teacher in school is teaching in school and the teacher who's teaching remote is teaching remote, not to have one teacher trying to look at a screen and look at a class at the same time. I don't care if the class has four kids or six kids, that's kind of undoable.

So we're seeing some problems. But this is the best news. I like ending with the best news. The best news is that I think because of what happened in Georgia, plus the advocacy we and others have done over and over and over, very few kids and teachers have gotten sick, even in the beginning of this. We've had six teachers die since the beginning of-- of school starting. We don't know if they got it in school or they-- because of community spread.

But what-- unlike in colleges, K through 12, we're not seeing the level of positivity cases. So that's why I'm going to end where I started. Masks and physical distancing really, really work as are the other things that the CDC required, and we need to be vigilant on all of those things. Last thing I'll say is, we really need a federal response, and we really need the federal government to be counting this.

All of this is a patchwork, and it would still be a lot better if we had actually some guidance and a whole lot of resources. People have front-loaded the resources. They don't have the money for PPE. They don't have the money to continue the cleaning, to do the retrofits on ventilation. And as we get closer and closer and closer to winter and-- and with flu season, we really need the resources to actually stand up the well-being support, to stand up the instructional supports, and to maintain the-- the safety supports.

SEANA SMITH: Randi, there's a lot to unpack there from a-- a number of points that you brought up. But let me just start with what you ended with, and that's the fact that we know what we need to do in order to reopen schools and how to do it safely. We need testing, like you said, PPE equipment.

Yet, we see it all over the-- it's all over social media, it's all over whoever you talk to, that teachers don't have the equipment that they need. It requires money. It requires trust from the students, from the parents, and also really from your peers, from the administrators. So what do you need-- in terms of the role of the federal government and more funding, what exactly do you need right now, and what are you looking for?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So-- and-- and I don't mean to be political here, but you clearly need a new president who actually thinks that this is important because the fact that we've had to fight like hell to even get what we've gotten thus far in terms of making sure that the CDC didn't water down the in-school protections.

So-- and that's what the GAO said too. The GAO actually criticized DeVos mightily because the only guidance that she put out here was that the-- the standardized tests would continue when the other-- when-- we do need testing, but we need actually COVID testing and we need these resources. So in a nutshell, what we need is you need the resources to state and local governments and schools because they pay for about 40% of-- of schools' spending.

So the-- a federal stimulus that's going to help state and localities will help schools make sure that we don't have huge layoffs of educators. That's number one. Number two, there's all of these safety things that have to be bought. It's PPE. It's ventilation supports like the MERV 13 filters. It's making sure that windows open. It's making sure you have cleaning supplies, that you have the signs that say "go this way, or go this way" so that you're not having kids cluster in a hallway.

But then there's also the kind of staff support. You really have to have a nurse in every school, and that costs money, and there's a shortage of school nurses. Also, you have to have guidance and-- and other kind of support personnel because kids have gone through a lot. And the last piece I would say is we need the-- the stuff, the equity stuff, the-- the equipment and the connectivity. 16 million kids still don't have that connectivity. And-- and we need to make sure that feeding is done.

We are finally in the-- in what they've just agreed to, Pelosi and Mnuchin, they-- they have extended the programs for feeding kids because we were-- they were all going to [INAUDIBLE]. So when you aggregate all of that in terms of every single school system through America, you start talking about numbers in the billions. Like, our number was just for the safety supports about 116 billion. When you put the layoff issues and the safety supports together, you get to about 200 billion.

JEN ROGERS: Hey, Randi, it sounds almost unsurmountable when you go over all of the issues. I have friends with kids in school districts across the country, and every night it's almost a competition of, like, who has it worse? Is it the people that got to start or the people that didn't get to start? For-- as you said, it's a patchwork.

I just want to know about New York City because it is-- it's the biggest. We're here. We're trying to figure it out. Do you think it's even worth New York trying to open? Or would it be better just to have the clarity and say, you guys, we thought about it. We can't do it. Let's just try and be virtual the whole year?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I think it's better to try. And this is-- remember, this is a school teacher who is saying that we have to have safety first, but we know that in-person learning is really important. We know it's important. We also know that child care is really important and that, you know, for so many years schooling did double duty. It did double duty as child care and as schooling.

But the reason I say that is because-- and it's really hard, and I really-- and I've been-- you know, look, I've-- I've been very involved and engaged obviously in terms of what's going on in terms of New York City, and the testing is important and all the safety protocols are important. But I have seen my members in the East District 75 schools right now in the last few days feeling this sense of a connection to their students and seeing parents being so relieved that we're trying.

And even in my own apartment building, I have friends that have kids who are pre-K, and I saw them smile for the first time in months because their child was in that, you know, was-- was in fellowship with other kids. Yes, it's hard. Yes, kids don't keep their masks on. We're starting to think about what kind of face shields we should have.

Yes, there's going to be situations where-- where schools are going to have to close because there's COVID-positive rates. But in a situation where we-- if we are mindful of the community spread-- because we ought to be sacrosanct about that. We got to be sacrosanct about safety. But if we can stand it up, we need to create in-person learning because that will help eradicate the social isolation that kids are feeling right now.