Head of America's Largest Teachers Union Calls for 5-Day In-Person Learning This Fall

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on Thursday called for a full return to in-person learning this fall, the Associated Press reported.

In remarks for an address on social media, Weingarten said: "Conditions have changed. We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning and support. And keep them open. Fully and safely, five days a week."

Weingarten stressed that schools should continue with COVID-19 mask requirements, social distancing, contact tracing and other measures.

In prepared remarks obtained by AP, Weingarten said the wide availability of vaccines and a new infusion of federal education money have removed many obstacles that prevented schools from opening.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Schools To Reopen in Fall
President Joe Biden gestures as he talks to students during a visit to Yorktown Elementary School, in Yorktown, Virginia, as first lady Jill Biden watches on May 3, 2021. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

If local unions heed her call, it would be seen as a major stride in the effort to reopen schools. Teachers unions have been blamed for slowing the process with demands for a variety of safety measures. Teachers in some districts have refused to return until ventilations systems are updated, virus tests are given and all teachers are vaccinated.

Weingarten said vaccines have been the decisive factor in her vision for a fall reopening. President Joe Biden in March ordered states to prioritize teachers in vaccination rollouts, and by the end of that month, federal health officials said 80% of school workers had been given their first shot.

"The fear that they will bring the virus home decreases the moment they get their shot," Weingarten wrote. Surveys by the union find that 89% of its 1.7 million members have been fully vaccinated or want to be, she says in her remarks.

"It's not risk free," Weingarten said. "But we can manage the threat by encouraging people to get vaccines and following guidance from the CDC."

The union will continue to push for 3 feet of space between students in classrooms, which the CDC recommended in March after reducing it from 6 feet. Weingarten said schools should work over the summer to "find adequate space" to maintain smaller classes through next school year.

A $1.9 trillion aid package that Biden signed in March included $123 billion to help schools reopen and recover from the pandemic. Weingarten, who endorsed Biden, wrote that his administration has been "fighting the pandemic with science, truth, transparency and, yes, money."

"The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in," she said.

The CDC has been saying since February that schools can safely reopen with certain safety measures, but many of the nation's largest districts have remained mostly or entirely online. The latest federal data found that, in March, 54% of public elementary and middle schools were offering five days a week of in-person instruction to all students.

Even in districts that have reopened, many students have opted to stay at home, including a disproportionate share of nonwhite students. Weingarten is suggesting that schools create committees of parents and teachers to tackle safety issues. That, along with continued safety measures, would help rebuild with families, Weingarten said.

The union is also coming out with a $5 million campaign to push for a fall reopening. The group said it will reach out to teachers, families and communities to highlight the value of getting all students back in the classroom. A local union in Pittsburgh plans to go door to door talking about safety measures in place in schools. Other local groups are helping operate vaccination clinics for students and families.

"When I say we're all in," Weingarten said, "we're all in."

Students Have Option for In-Person Learning
Teacher Samantha Ng (second from right) assists kindergarten and Pre-K students in a bunny hop in the schoolyard at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021, in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images