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Politics and disinformation about Covid are hurting schools: AFT President

Randi Weingarten, AFT President, talks the biggest challenges for kids going back to school as covid cases rise.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Well new data out about COVID-19 infections in children points to a growing concern about the impact it's having on kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics pointing to 25,000 new infections reported in the last week alone, and that's raised growing concerns about how schools are being-- or school classrooms are being conducted here in the face of that surge.

Let's bring in Randi Weingarten, she's the president of the American Federation of Teachers. And, Randi, I know it's been a very busy month for you. Last time we talked, you were prepping for back to school, trying to get all the protocols in place. You've got a few weeks under your belt now. How is that transition going with so many schools now back to in-person classes?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So, look, the good news is that everybody has started back to school as of this past Monday all throughout the country. I've been, I think, to, like, 30 places in 15 or 16 states, including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia-- and while there is trepidation, there's also a tremendous amount of joy and a sense of relief, because we know that kids need to be in school, and we know that it has to be safe.

So this is where the bright line is. The places like California that actually really spent time, intentional time, from the state government down on the safeguards like mass vaccines-- they have a vaccine or test policy for school staff-- ventilation, outbreak control, they've seen very few outbreaks. And now you see LA actually saying that kids should have, those who can, should have vaccine requirements as well.

In places like Florida where you had no leadership, or, actually, pretty adversarial leadership from DeSantis, you see outbreaks all over the place-- same in terms of Texas. And so there's a pretty clear line here where governors, you know, have helped us, we're being able to open schools in a welcome and safe way. Doesn't mean there's not going to be cases, of course there's going to be cases-- you just said the 25,000 cases of kids.

But the good news is we know how to keep people safe. And so we have to be evangelical about keeping kids safe and keeping the staff safe, because we know that being in school is so important.

AKIKO FUJITA: You mentioned the vaccine mandate in the LA Unified School District-- the very first school district, at least in the country, to mandate those vaccines for those kids 12 and older. We're essentially tapping into the inevitable-- I mean, is that where things are headed if we think about where we're going to be six months from now, a year from now?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: It is where things are headed. But you know-- so Culver City did it first, which is right outside of the LA school district. But you know, I mean, we have to get through the disinformation. I would say there's two issues that are hurting us right now-- politics and disinformation.

And I do not-- like before COVID, there was never a question whether the first priority for us as educators was to keep people in school safe, keep our kids safe, and keep the educators safe. There was never a question about this.

I don't quite understand why all of a sudden, you know, the issue about wearing masks, the issue about keeping kids safe, the issue about whether or not you have a vaccine, that these have become political issues. But the second problem is all of this disinformation-- the quack doctors, the disinformation to women who are pregnant or to, you know, young boys who think that they may become infertile-- all of these things we have to debunk.

But over the course of the next year, I believe what you're going to see is that these vaccines are going to be part of life just like a polio vaccine was as I was growing up, a smallpox vaccine was for George Washington's army. So the bottom line for us is that we have to keep everybody safe. And that is a community responsibility, but we also have to work through the medical exemptions, the religious exemptions, and during this period of time, the accommodations that will be needed as we go from emergency authorization to final authorization.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, Randi, we kind of touched on that slightly last time you came on here just because of the historical precedents of vaccines being required, you know, in past episodes-- you're using the polio example there. But what changed, in your mind, about this time around? And why are you seeing so much-- I know you mentioned the disinformation, but it seems like it's more than that.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, I think it's two things. One is I just actually read a pretty interesting article in the "New York Times" that vaccines were a way of life and so were the-- and so were the backlash. So I don't remember-- I was too young to know the backlash during the polio vaccine.

But, you know, there were backlashes at different times in terms of vaccines. And there is-- so that's number one, that there has been but we don't remember that. But number two, there is this very bizarre and I think false sense of what freedom is. Freedom is a way to keep all of us safe.

For us all to be free, we have to all be safe. But when you had Donald Trump write the word, liberate, and make it political to Michigan and to others-- when he wouldn't take a vaccine publicly, when he would only do it privately, when you had Fox-- you know, even though Fox now has a vaccine mandate and has a mask mandate, when their commentators know said other things-- there's a political strand here that says that COVID doesn't exist and that, you know, it's macho to actually not take the vaccine or to not wear a mask.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. And, I guess, you know, this all matters when we think about of the shortages-- that was the other thing we discussed last time you were on-- in terms of maybe teachers quitting at higher rates and now kind of the staff around the schools-- bus drivers. I had to read it again to make sure it was right-- but in Massachusetts, the governor activating the National Guard to help with the bus driver shortage there. I mean, what are you seeing now as these mandates increase in terms of, I guess, the shortages that exist?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, let's just say this-- the bus driver-- there was a reason why we have bus drivers shortages right now. When schools were closed, they cut the bus driver contracts. And then instead of actually paying people a decent rate, they didn't prepare to get the bus drivers back.

So you know, if you actually lose your job and then somebody says, oh, please, please come back and you're working somewhere else as a bus driver for a transit company, it was foreseeable. It's part of the reason why we fought so hard for the HEROES bill and the American Rescue bill to make sure that people didn't lose their jobs because of COVID.

So, yes, we need bus drivers. There is a bus driver shortage. Will there be more acute shortages because of vaccine requirements? Maybe in some places, yes, maybe, no. But overwhelmingly, the good news is that my members, at least, voluntarily, from bus drivers to teachers to nurses, have, by 90% rates, have had the vaccine.

So the real issue is, how do we take the people who are hesitant, particularly those who are pregnant, those who have listened to this misinformation-- how do we try to debunk these myths more in kindness? Don't demonize the people who are hesitant. We need to talk to them. Their doctors need to talk to them.

And we need to deal with the shortages that we have. But number one, we've got to keep kids safe. We've got to keep educators safe. We've got to keep schools open. We know what to do even with this Delta variant, and that's masks, ventilation, good outbreak process, obviously washing your hands, cleaning, and distancing-- but number one, vaccination.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, it feels like, increasingly, making sure these schools are run smoothly-- so much of that discussion starts with educating-- our education about vaccines and really just taking, as you said, that disinformation sort of point by point. But I know you've got a tall task ahead of you. And, Randi, we always appreciate having you on the show. Randi Weingarten, AFT President, joining us there.