In a few short weeks, schools around the United States will reopen despite coronavirus case numbers surging to record highs nationally. For some teachers, this could mean entering classrooms before they are ready or feel safe to do so. With a very real fear that things will only get worse under current plans to push forward, some teachers in states requiring in-person classes five days a week have started getting their affairs in order and creating wills. Still, more teachers are getting ready for the fall by preparing to go on strike.
On Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the United States, announced that it would support its 1.7 million members should they choose to strike in response to school districts and states moving to reopen classrooms lacking enough health and safety measures.
The union proposes schools wait to reopen classrooms until virus transmission rates in the area fall below 1% and the average daily test positivity rate stays below 5%. Based on this measure, only two of the nation’s 10 largest school districts could reopen for in-person classes according to a New York Times analysis.
The union is also asking for effective contact tracing where schools do reopen, mask requirements for both teachers and students, as well as updated ventilation systems and procedures put in place to maintain six feet between each individual. AFT's president, Randi Weingarten, said in a speech last week that if the federal government can support the cruise industry and hedge funds during the health crisis, “they sure as hell can help working families, and can help educators ensure our kids get the education they need.”
With those thresholds in mind, the AFT says strikes should be a “last resort.” However, this support gives educators and school employees leverage to negotiate for adequate protection in a situation that has felt confusing and, at times, hopeless.
“A lot of people are just finding other jobs, or trying to. I'm trying to convince them not to, I'm not sure if it's working,” Katrina, a high school teacher in Texas, told Refinery29 in an interview. “One of our [union] members was talking to me and was saying, ‘I feel like I'm being held hostage. Like I either go to work or I get penalized. And I don't like this feeling of, you have to do this, you could die, but we don't care.’ I've done my best to talk people out of leaving. But, I mean, it's a personal decision.”
Currently, a Republican-led stimulus package proposal includes money for reopening schools. On Monday, Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion stimulus package called the HEALS Act which includes a proposed $105 million to go to schools, $70 million of which is targeted to K-12 schools. Should the GOP bill pass, two-thirds of funding is reserved to help schools reopen for in-person teaching. In order to receive the funding, schools would need to meet “minimum opening requirements” established by their respective states.
In July, Trump threatened to pull federal funding from schools that don’t reopen in the fall. While he doesn’t have the power to do that, according to the Washington Post, he has insisted that any new funding be tied to schools reopening. Additionally, the HEALS Act includes a five-year “liability shield” which would prevent schools and universities — as well as businesses and hospitals — from being sued over coronavirus-related damages.
The AFT’s vote to support strikes leaves it up to each local chapter to make the decision to strike for themselves.