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We're all wrestling with what’s best for students: National Education Association President

Becky Pringle, National Education Association President joins Yahoo Finance’s On The Move panel to break down how the coronavirus crisis has created back to school concerns for children, parents and teachers.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Welcome back to "Yahoo Finance On the Move." All of us, no matter how successful, owe something to a teacher in our past who took the time to help us learn one of those key lessons, if not several, that you need to succeed. Joining us now to talk about education the United States and what's happening during the pandemic is the president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle. She's the new president of the organization, the largest labor union in the country.

And it's good to have you here, but never has it been more crucial that we understand the risks that teachers are facing, along with students-- 97,000 children testing positive for coronavirus. And we have this mishmash of procedures to open nationwide. What do we all need to know?

BECKY PRINGLE: Well, first of all, it is so good to join you here. I have been honored and humbled by the members of the National Education Association asking me to lead in this moment. And this is a moment like none other as we all prepare for what we'll bring-- what we'll bring to our schools, to our educators, to our students and our families and communities this fall. We're all wrestling with what is best for students.

Our educators want to be back in school with our students. When they were asked to leave their classrooms at a moment's notice back in the spring, no one was ready for that. No one was ready. As we think about making choices about whether to put our school-- our students back in those schools-- these are the things that we are asking-- really, at this point, Adam, we're demanding that our country provide for students.

We know that our schools are not safe if they do not have infection rates in their communities that are low and have been low for two weeks. We know our schools are not safe if they don't have the materials, the masks, and PPE they need for the students and educators. They are not safe if they can't socially distance or sanitize or ensure that they have a plan when, not if, but when a student gets sick or an educator gets sick.

We're already seeing that happening all over the country, throwing our schools and our families into chaos. We are demanding that the federal government provide the resources we need so that we can reopen our schools safely.

- Hey, Miss Pringle. Thanks for joining us. You know, in many parts of the country, we have a shortage of teachers, right? And now I'm hearing that many teachers are retiring. If this acceleration continues of teachers heading out of the labor force, where do you expect this shortage to hit the most? Which states or which counties?

BECKY PRINGLE: Thank you for that question. We are very concerned about that. In fact, I just got an email last night-- I get one almost every day-- with a teacher. And you can feel the tears in their eyes when they're writing it to you, that the profession that they loved-- and these are early career educators, mid, and veteran teachers all saying, I cannot put my students in this place where they are unsafe and I feel unsafe as well.

And it will hit hardest in our schools where we already are having challenges in terms of staffing them. And I will say this too. You know, we at the NEA are working really, really hard to diversify our workforce, and our teachers of color work mostly in those schools where we have the largest populations of students of color.

We know that they already do not have safe schools. We know they already don't have ventilation systems that provide them to breathe in fresh air. They already are dealing with inequities that have been built in the system because of race and because of economic status. And so we know that those schools will be hit hardest where we'll lose more teachers and we'll lose more teachers of color at a time when we're trying to invite them into our profession. We know that we must do better.

JULIE HYMAN: You were just a moment ago-- this is Julie here. Thank you for joining us. You were sort of giving the criteria for safe reopening of schools. One of them, of course, is something that the school administrators themselves cannot control. That's the infection rate in the region. So that's allowing a place like New York City schools, the largest public school system, to reopen. But the other piece is in their control-- the resources, the ventilation, et cetera. Is there any school system in the country that you're hearing from your teachers is ready to reopen that is meeting those criteria?

BECKY PRINGLE: So here's the thing. What we've heard is that some of the schools considering reopening are deciding whether or not they will look at infection rates or whether they'll look to see if they have the resources to provide masks for all the students and the educators or if they can provide the sanitizing stations. And what we're saying is you need to provide all of those things.

And the first thing is to look at those infection rates. And then you need to involve the educators, the parents, the communities in that decision. And even though they the infection rates in a particular area might be low, what school district put in their budget the funds for plexiglass to protect their school secretaries? What school district put into their budgets funds to have masks and change them on a regular basis? No one did that.

That's why we are demanding that the federal government act and act now. We are tired of waiting for Mitch McConnell to do his job. We are tired of waiting for leadership from the White House to say we need to make sure our students are safe.

I hope you saw this letter from a superintendent who said, you know, I am being asked to make this decision? I already lost a teacher. One of my teachers already died when we just had them gathered together just to prepare for the students to come back into the school. And you're asking me to decide whether I am sending my students and teachers back into a situation where we already know they're going to get sick and some of them will die? That is not fair. It is not right. And we are saying that this country can do better.

- Hi, Ms. Pringle. Just one last question. How many educators have fallen ill? You referenced that you heard from one person. But do you have an estimate of how many have fallen ill? And what do you think is the first step? Is it testing? Is it mask wearing? I mean, what would be the first thing you want done?

BECKY PRINGLE: The first thing I want done is making sure that we have the resources, which has not been done yet. Individual school districts are trying to piece and cobble together resources. What we're saying is that we need those resources first. And then, once we have the resources, then we need to involve educators and parents and community members in the planning.

And then when we have those resources, we need to make sure that we have adequate testing and that we're getting the test results back. Right now, we're putting our students and educators in situations where, even if they have the testing, they're not getting results back in a timely manner so it actually makes a difference and they can begin to trace and isolate in a way that it protects others from being infected. So those are the things that must be in place before school opens.

ADAM SHAPIRO: It's important for us to remember what Horace Mann said-- "doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves." Becky Pringle is the president of the National Education Association. We appreciate your being here "On the Move."