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Union Representing 1.7 Million U.S. Teachers Says It Will Support Strikes If Schools Reopen Unsafely

Health + Wellness

The American Federation of Teachers issued guidelines for the safe reopening of schools, including the use of face masks. izusek / E+ / Getty Images Plus

The second largest teachers union in the U.S. announced Tuesday it would support strikes if schools reopened without proper safety measures in place to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The announcement comes as the Trump administration has called for schools to reopen in the fall for in-person instruction amid a nationwide surge in cases, NPR reported.

"We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators," American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said at the union's biennial convention Tuesday, as NPR reported. "But if authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve ... nothing is off the table. Not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes."

The union, which represents 1.7 million teachers, issued the resolution in support of strikes on Friday but announced it at its convention Tuesday, which was held online because of the pandemic, as ABC News reported. The resolution means that the union will offer legal, communications and staffing support to any local districts that decide to strike.

The resolution also lists certain conditions that must be met in order for schools to reopen safely. They include:

  1. Only reopening in areas that have reduced the infection rate to below five percent and the transmission rate to below one percent
  2. Only reopening in areas with effective testing and tracing mechanisms in place
  3. Having a trigger in place to close schools again if infections rise
  4. Establishing workplace accommodations for employees who are at greater risk if they contract COVID-19
  5. Enacting safety measures like requiring masks for staff and students, ensuring physical distancing of six feet and providing well-stocked hand-washing facilities

The largest U.S. teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA), also said it would not rule out strikes to keep staff and students safe.

"Nobody wants to see students back in the classroom more than educators," NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement Tuesday reported by POLITICO. "But when it comes to their safety, we're not ready to take any options off the table."

The Trump administration, meanwhile, criticized the AFT for issuing a strike threat.

"Let's not pretend that Ms. Weingarten's threat to strike has anything to do with the safety or children or the public," Education Department spokesperson Angela Morabito said in a statement reported by POLITICO. "If the unions were really concerned about doing what's best for students and teachers, they'd be focused on what they need to do to be a partner in reopening schools safely."

However, Weingarten said that President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had inflamed the situation with their push to "open or else." She said a June poll found 76 percent of AFT members were comfortable returning to in-person instruction if safety measures were in place, but that was before the recent spike in cases and aggressive push to reopen schools.

"Now they're angry and afraid," Weingarten said, according to POLITICO. "Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too."

Large districts like Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta have already decided to begin the school year online, according to ABC News. In hard-hit Florida, meanwhile, the local AFT has sued to block the state's reopening plan, which it called "reckless and unsafe."

Trump acknowledged last week that some districts may not be able to reopen immediately, but still wants Congress to block relief for schools that do not reopen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines last week largely supporting the reopening of schools, POLITICO reported.

"The best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms," the CDC wrote. "Death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults. At the same time, the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant."

However, Eskelsen García criticized the statement for making no mention of teacher safety.


"There is not one word about the health risks of the big people in that school," she told Yahoo Life. "We wonder what the silence about all that is about, like, 'Don't worry about the kids and certainly don't worry about the teachers!' They don't even come into the equation."

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