Largest U.S. Teachers Union Will Support Affiliate Strikes If School Reopenings Push Ahead

As schools prepare to reopen and the debate continues regarding safety for teachers, staff and students amid the coronavirus pandemic, the largest teachers' union in the United States said it would support its members striking over health and safety conditions in educational institutions.

The National Education Association (NEA), which boasts over 3 million members provided a statement from NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

"Nobody wants to see students back in the classroom more than educators, but when it comes to their safety, we're not ready to take any options off the table," García wrote. "That's why we are demanding that Congress and President Trump guarantee resources to our public schools so that they can provide a safe, equitable and quality education for all students, no matter their race, background or ZIP code."

In an email to Newsweek on Aug. 4, an NEA spokesperson clarified the NEA's stance on supporting strikes.

"The NEA will absolutely support any affiliate that chooses to strike in response to unsafe learning and teaching conditions," the spokesperson wrote. "This should be unambiguous."

The NEA's inital comments differed slightly from those of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the country's second-largest national teachers' union. The AFT announced Tuesday that its executive council had already approved backing local "safety strikes" over health concerns on a case-by-case basis and as a last resort.

"We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a speech. "But if authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table."

Weingarten also named protests, negotiations and lawsuits as potential methods of rebellion if the union's 1.7 million members feel their health and safety is threatened in the classroom.

Tennessee Protest
A protester holds a sign in the shape of a grave stone while driving past the Tennessee governor's residence during a protest against the reopening of schools on July 27, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brett Carlsen/Getty

The Florida Education Association (FEA), the state's largest teachers' union, took another approach in protesting reopening plans. The union filed a lawsuit July 20 against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other state officials to overturn an emergency order requiring schools to provide students with the option of receiving in-person instruction five days a week.

"Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one," FEA President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement. "The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control. He needs to accept the evolving science."

The FEA—which is a local chapter of both the NEA and AFT—wrote in an email to Newsweek that Florida teachers are not allowed to strike, as it would violate the state's constitution. If teachers did choose to strike, they would be subject to severe penalties including termination, loss of retirement benefits, and possible action against their teaching certificate, the FEA said.

The lawsuit is one action the union is allowed to take to "stop the reckless and unsafe reopening of public school campuses as coronavirus infections surge statewide," according to an NEA press release. Florida has been seen as a worldwide epicenter for the coronavirus, with cases totaling 470,386 as of July 31.

Erica Marsh, a fifth-grade teacher at a public charter school in Georgia's DeKalb County, told Newsweek that she personally supported teachers going on strike because of unsafe working conditions. While Marsh isn't a member of a teachers' union herself, she agreed with AFT's announcement approving strikes as an option.

"I think it is great that the union is standing behind its teachers to protect their health and well-being," Marsh wrote in an email. "This is what they are there for and what we count on unions to do."

Marsh's school will follow the DeKalb County School District's decision to begin the school year with online instruction, a decision Marsh felt relieved to hear.

"I was terrified our school was going to open in-person at the beginning of the school year and was actually having trouble sleeping because I was so worried about it," she wrote. If her school had decided to resume classes in-person, Marsh would have contacted the American Association of Educators (AAE) for help, she said. The AAE is the country's largest non-union educators' organization.

Many school districts across the U.S. have decided to implement remote learning for either part or all of the fall semester, despite President Donald Trump's repeated insistence that schools should reopen for in-person instruction.

"I would like to see the schools open 100 percent. And we'll do it safely. We'll do it carefully," Trump told reporters July 22.

Even top U.S. health officials appear to be siding with Trump in the push to reopen schools. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Friday a "default position" would be to try "as best as we possibly can in the context of the safety of the children and the teachers" to get students back into classrooms.

During the same congressional hearing, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), echoed the importance of opening K-12 schools.

"It's really important to realize it's not public health versus the economy about school opening, it's public health versus public health of the K-through-12 to get the schools open. We've got to do it safely and we have to be able to accommodate," he said.

In her speech Tuesday, Weingarten said Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been "chaotic and catastrophic," and that he has "downplayed" the virus's threat by dismissing scientists' and health officials' advice.

And educators like Marsh are worried that reopening schools places too heavy a burden on the teachers to enforce the necessary health precautions.

"It is extremely unreasonable to expect to show students handwashing and mask wearing procedures at the beginning of the school year, and then to implement those procedures with the fidelity we would need to minimize health risks," she wrote.

A group of Tennessee teachers held a mock funeral Monday to protest plans throughout the state for schools to reopen amid the pandemic, promoting the protest under the name "Dead students can't learn. Dead teachers can't teach."

Marsh told Newsweek she wouldn't feel better returning to the classroom until there is medicine available that could help lower the risk of severe illness or death when exposed to coronavirus.

Correction, 08/03, 5:25 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that the NEA had 2.3 million members. The union has over 3 million members. The story's headline has been corrected to reflect that the NEA can "support" its local affiliates in their actions, rather than "allow" certain actions.

Update, 08/04, 12:05 p.m.: This article and its headline has been updated to include an additional comment from the NEA.