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'The Trump administration has done nothing' to stop COVID-19 spread in schools: AFT President

AFT President Randi Weingarten joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers and Reggie Wade to break down how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting schools, and what a Biden administration means for education.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Let's talk now about education. Schools in Detroit are pausing student learning, in-person student learning, because of the coronavirus. So let's chat more about what's next in education with Randi Weingarten. She's the president of the American Federation of Teachers. And we are also joined by Yahoo Finance's Reggie Wade for this conversation.

Randi, I'm going to start with you. We see schools closing down in the city of Detroit, as we're seeing cases of coronavirus surging around the country. Wondering if you think this is the right call to make, and what could the impact be on students, especially if this happens across the country?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So you're going to see schools-- so let me start with, first off, thank you again for having me on. And you know how much in Detroit, in Massachusetts, in Boston, in New York City, we have fought to get the safeguards, the safety safeguards in order to re-open school buildings, because we know that instruction is really, really, really-- instruction in person is really important for kids.

Having said that, the-- and I'm sorry that I'm so angry about this. The Trump administration has done nothing. We're seeing huge surge in cases. When you have this kind of surge in terms of community positivity, schools are going to close down again and revert back to remote. And we're starting to see that in lots of different places. I think you're going to see that in New York City as well, if the positivity rate in the city exceeds 3%.

Because even though we've been able to create a cocoon in places that actually understood that the safeguards-- the community spread is going to spread into schools. You can't stop community spread from spreading [AUDIO OUT]. And that's why you're seeing-- that's why the failure actually deal with the surge, the failure by the Trump administration and by the deniers to deal with COVID is creating a terrible situation. It's worsening the economy, and it's going to create yet another terrible situation for kids.

REGGIE WADE: Randi, Reggie Wade here. Do you believe that teachers' voices are being heard? I hear from many teachers across the country, and they're continuing to say they do not have the PPE equipment that they need. They do not feel safe. Do you think we're doing a good job at listening to our educators during this time?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: No. And I think part of it is that you don't have anyone in this administration who has fought to make sure that schools are safe, well-being places for our kids and for our educators. I mean, look what just happened this week. Ivanka Trump's kids were told that they had to leave the private school that they were in because they signed a document that said, you're going to [AUDIO OUT] create safety all over the place, including wearing masks. And they justified that, and so even in that private school, they basically said, you can't have your kids here because your kids may be spreaders of COVID.

But what's happened is that teachers want to teach in schools. They know they need the [AUDIO OUT] standards. They need the safeguards. But separate and apart from the safeguards like PPE, of which 90% of teachers are spending their own money on it, is that the way in which hybrid education is being stood up is ridiculous too. You cannot teach kids on a screen and in person at the same time. Even this, this TV show, we are-- it's different if we were all together and reading each other's body language than just doing things on a screen. But can you imagine what it takes for a teacher to engage kids on a screen and then try to have a separate set of eyes trying to do something in person?

So the lack of resources as a guidance, the lack of any federal tracker on this, all of these things are terrible, and these are things that teachers have asked for. There are places where teachers' voices are being listened to, like in New York City, but that's because of collective bargaining.

KRISTIN MYERS: Right. I didn't want to jump in on you there, but I know we're running out of time, and I do want to ask you about the new president-elect that we have, and what you're expecting, and what you're hoping for under a Biden administration, at least in terms of education, especially once you no longer have an education secretary Betsy DeVos.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, we-- first off, I'm excited about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Number one, they are pro-worker, they are pro-student, they are pro-teacher. They want to make sure that people have a pathway to the middle class and make sure that schools are the kind of great equalizer that they're supposed to be.

But they have to deal with COVID first, which means we need to have standards. The Department of Education is not going to be the Board of Education for every district, but you need to have standards by which schools should be able to reopen, and you need to have the resources, and you need to have federal tracking of that.

Number two, we need the resources to meet the needs of kids, like their-- because of all the issues that have happened in terms of social isolation. Number three, we need the resources for things like digital devices, food insecurity. So there's lots of things that they can do, but it needs to be aligned [AUDIO OUT] resources, what kids need, including having-- as Reggie just said-- people feeling and teachers feeling that they're deeply listened to. So I'm very excited about this, even though we are in a really, really dark time because of the failure of this current administration to deal with COVID.

KRISTIN MYERS: Right. And quickly here, Randi, wondering about student loan debt. If you have any hopes-- and I know that many teachers out there are struggling with high amounts of student loan debt, not to mention the amount of students that are facing high amounts of student loan debt. Are you hoping that that's going to be discharged under a Biden administration?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Yes, but I think that the issue is-- look, Betsy DeVos [AUDIO OUT] a mess of this. And I talk about student loan debt from the perspective of, we have sued DeVos several times. We sued Navient. We've gotten to a settlement with Navient that will help people.

But ultimately, just like mortgages, and just like other things, student loan debt needs to be transparent. It needs to be clear. People need to know what their choices are. And then we need to try to mitigate it to actually make student loan debt is not a death sentence for people.

Betsy DeVos has made this worse for the 43 million people that have student loans right now. There's a lot that you can do, executive action to clean this up. And then there are things that we need to do to mitigate and discharge that debt.