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Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten on Why She Now Supports Vaccine Mandates for Teachers

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We continue to look at the state of school reopenings amid a surge in COVID-19 infections among children in the U.S. with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten, who had favored voluntary vaccinations for teachers, now backs a vaccine mandate for educators because the Delta variant “significantly changes the circumstances.” Weingarten notes that almost 90% of teachers represented by the American Federation of Teachers are already vaccinated, saying it’s time to stop “scapegoating” teachers for the challenges in reopening schools. “The teachers in the country understand the importance of being back in school and the importance of vaccinations,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re going to look at how the highly contagious corona Delta variant is impacting plans to reopen schools. We’re joined now by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Over the weekend, she made headlines for backing mandated COVID-19 vaccine for teachers, in a reversal.

Randi Weingarten, thanks for joining us. Why have you changed your mind on this?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, what I actually said on Meet the Press was that I think that employers, this work now on vaccines — first, our union and I have been pro-vaccine. We have been pro-vaccine for hundreds — I mean, the union is around for hundreds of years, or a hundred years. We’ve been pro-vaccine for all that time. We are pro this vaccine. And 90% of our teacher members have gotten the shot and have stepped up. But we thought that, initially, that it would be better, particularly because of the polarization, to do this in a volitional way. And you see that there are real — because of disinformation, particularly about, you know, young people and whether or not — you know, on fertility issues, all of which is wrong. These vaccines are safe and effective. But there’s a lot of misinformation. And we thought we could kind of get through that. But what has happened is that the — and your doctor, the doctor before me, you know, was saying it: There’s this Delta variant, significantly changes the circumstances, particularly for young people and particularly for kids who, under 12, can’t get a vaccine.

So, what I said on Meet the Press was that my personal conviction is that we should be working with, not opposing, our employers on vaccine policies, including vaccine mandates. We should be, you know, bargaining the impacts. We should be making sure there’s medical and religious exemptions. And I said that I would bring my leadership together this week, which we are in the midst of these conversations, about — you know, about that kind of position. So, you know, I’ve always been for vaccines. And the issue really becomes what — you know, mandates are a strategy; they’re not a solution. The issue becomes how can we protect people, how can we protect people in Texas, how can we protect our kids and educators in Florida, and how do we have this broad-based vaccination, which is the most effective tool to getting to herd immunity, and herd immunity will help us put COVID in the rearview mirror.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Randi, could you talk about the — I think it’s a $5 million back-to-school —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — vaccine campaign that you’re hoping to launch with the AFT?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, we have launched it already, Juan. And what has — so, in May, we said that the vaccines gave us enough confidence, plus the layered mitigation that showed you could actually stop transmissibility of the viruses today. So it gave us enough confidence to say we need to have schools reopen fully, five days a week, in the fall. And we pushed very hard to have all sorts of summer programs standing up. And you see summer camps and summer programs that were stood up.

But we said we were going to put our money where our mouth is, and we found — I mean, it’s not easy for a union to find $5 million — or, our union to find $5 million. But we knew that it was really important to run back-to-school like you would run a get-out-the-vote campaign. And so that’s what we’re doing. And we, you know, basically said to our locals all across the country, “Here’s $5 million. Apply for a grant. We’re going to make it really easy, but it has to be about getting everyone back to school, and not just our members, but our kids and our parents.” So, we have given out 65 grants already, totaling about $4.7, $4.8 million.

The scope of it — you know, because people join together on grants — are about 1,800 of the 3,500 locals in 30 states, in places that, if you aggregate, affect about 20 million kids. And we have been standing up vaccine clinics. Chicago every week is standing up a vaccine clinic. I was in St. Louis. We stood up a vaccine clinic in St. Louis, the district and us together. Rio Rancho, New Mexico, we’re doing billboards. We’re doing ads in newspapers. I’m going to be in Indiana this week. We’re doing — you know, where they have gotten back 90% of the kids who were not there last year. And we’re talking to parents, and we’re talking to kids, and we’re talking to our members, because the North Star has to be safety. The Delta variant has thrown us a curveball. But at the end of the day, in-person schooling is really important for kids, but we have an obligation to the entire school community to make it safe.

And I want to say one more thing, which is, it’s time to stop scapegoating my members. You tell me another profession that has 90% of that profession vaccinated. The teachers in the country understand the importance of being back in school and the importance of vaccinations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Randi, I wanted to ask you about the long-term effects on education of the pandemic. Clearly, this has upended public education worldwide. The Times recently reported that the United States saw a sudden 10% drop in kindergarten enrollments. And even as public schools reopen online, pre-K-to-12th-grade education has exploded. Do you see the pandemic as allowing changes that those who are seeking to privatize public education have always longed for?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, so, Juan, I would say two things about that. Obviously the privatizers, you know, look at this as an opportunity for them, which is just morally wrong. But obviously they do. But look what has happened. We’ve done remote education because we had to. And look how much clamoring there’s been for in-school education. Even Fox, even conservative media, people want our kids to be in school, because — I hope because it’s really important for our kids, you know, their socialization, their relationship building. But it’s also really important for communities. And so, I think that we’ve seen that, you know, in this last 18 months.

Number two, I think that we’ve seen that remote education, it worked for some kids. And I do think, because of the Delta variant and because of what will probably happen, unfortunately, with quarantining and things like that, we have to be understanding that there will still be remote education this year. I hope there’s no hybrid. That was, frankly, one of the worst things that happened. We have to either have in-school, and for those limited people who really need — like their kids are immunocompromised, they can’t take the vaccine — will probably have to still have some remote education.

But the privatizers are going to be what the privatizers are. And what was ironic about this year is, take Miami. The Miami archdiocese has said that they’re going to have masks for all their kids. You know, why do — let’s see — they’ve gotten that flexibility to do that, and yet Governor DeSantis refuses to allow local districts to have masks in Florida, even though we’ve seen a huge increase in COVID for kids in Florida, and kids under 12 can’t get the vaccines. So, I do think that Betsy DeVos and DeSantis and Abbott and these folks are trying to destabilize public schooling.

But that’s not my issue right now, as much as I care about it. My issue right now is how do we help get kids a safe and welcoming environment, and how do we make the public schools that, and how do we not only get them open, but keep them open. And that requires as many people as possible to get the vaccine who can. And that also requires the layered mitigation of masks, good ventilation and testing when we see an outbreak.

AMY GOODMAN: Randi Weingarten, as president of the American Federation of Teachers, what do you say to Governor DeSantis, who is now threatening to stop paying school officials who support mask mandates?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, don’t be political. Stop being political. Your job is to actually protect people’s public health. That’s what I say to him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I have just one question for you, but non-COVID-related. There was a report that came out of the Harvard Kennedy School last month on assessing the state Common Core standards testing obsession across the country. And it found — it hasn’t gotten much attention, but it reported that not only have achievements in reading and math not improved significantly over the last decade of these Common Core standards, but that achievement levels in science and social studies have dropped significantly as all these school systems focused on testing. Could you comment on where you think Common Core is now?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So, look, I mean, Juan, in your question, you just answered it, which is that it wasn’t about — I mean, what doomed Common Core around the country was that one immediately went to testing instead of using Common Core as a vehicle, as a curriculum, to actually try to help create lesson planning and work with kids so that they became critical thinkers and worked in a more deeper way in mathematics and in literacy. But because the scores were more important than the actual work, what it also did is it squeezed out subjects like science and my subject and my passion, which is social studies.

And part of what it squeezed out is the project-based instruction that we do, in an age-appropriate way, all throughout the country in terms of social studies, looking at current events, looking at civics, making it interesting for kids so that they want to learn about the history of our country — the good, the bad — assess it, and want to be able to see what’s happening, like on 1/6, through the eyes of what it means to be a multiracial democracy.

And so, I think that that study is an indictment of the test fixation that has happened in this country. Now, do we need an accountability system in the country? Of course we do. But it has to be based on what kids know and are able to do and what happens in classrooms. And figuring out how to link what happens in classrooms to accountability is far better than having a single test. And that’s what it’s showing.

AMY GOODMAN: Randi Weingarten, we just have 30 seconds, but the Senate is expected to vote today on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. House Speaker Pelosi says they won’t even consider that unless the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill is also weighed at the same time — among the things in that, universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Your response, overall?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, both of these bills are really important. And as much as I am a big believer in both the human infrastructure and the traditional bridges, you know, roads infrastructure bill that is in the bipartisan one, what’s important about what the Senate is doing is that people think that Washington is broke, and we need to find ways to have some bipartisan compromises to be able to move an agenda for the American people. So, I think that Majority Leader Schumer is — and Senator Sanders, who have been working in tandem on the reconciliation piece, that’s going to be the next piece in the Senate, after this bipartisan infrastructure bill. But as much as I may disagree with several of the Republicans on the — and, you know, several of the senators on other things, it is important to celebrate that they are getting to a bipartisan infrastructure bill that will repair electric grids, that will repair bridges, that will do the kinds of things that we need to do to move our physical infrastructure, create jobs in the country. And that’s good news.

AMY GOODMAN: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, thanks so much for joining us.


AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, New York lawmakers are weighing impeachment of Governor Andrew Cuomo. We’ll speak with a New York state senator. Stay with us.

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