Teachers' union chief says 'schools must be open' in fall

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The head of America's second-largest teachers' union is calling for all public schools to open five days a week this fall, pushing forcefully for in-person learning over the uneven progress made by the Biden administration.

"There is no doubt: Schools must be open," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a speech Thursday on how she believes schools can reopen safely amid the pandemic.

"Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open," Weingarten said. "The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in."

While Weingarten said the reopening of schools is not without risks, she believes current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to halt the spread of the coronavirus coupled with more people getting vaccinated makes regular, in-person learning more attainable.

Her comments come on the heels of a vote Wednesday by an advisory panel to the CDC recommending that Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine be used in children as young as 12.

Weingarten is arguing that teachers and students, who have felt the drain and stress of remote learning over the past two school years, are ready to meet the challenge after she toured schools in Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.

"Prolonged isolation is harmful. School is where children learn. It's where they work together and play together," she said.

Polling conducted by the AFT, which represents 1.7 million members, along with civil rights groups, found that 73 percent of parents are comfortable with in-person learning this fall, with the number increasing to 94 percent if the teachers union's reopening plan is fully in place. Several teachers unions across the country have expressed skepticism about reopening schools without proper protocols in place, and teachers also expressed concern over their own safety and sought priority in getting Covid-19 vaccines during the early rollout.

Republicans have blamed Democrats and teachers' unions for stalling the reopening of schools.

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Weingarten says she supports President Joe Biden and his efforts for reopening more public schools in his first 100 days in office. In an interview last month with NBC's "TODAY" show, Biden said that all schools should "probably" reopen this fall.

The president met his 100-day goal of having most elementary and middle schools open for full, in-person learning, according to an Education Department survey, increasing from 46 percent of schools nationwide in January to 54 percent. Still, most students are still learning remotely in some way, with almost 4 in 10 students taking all online instruction and 2 in 10 students doing a mix of online and in-classroom learning.

There also remain disparities among students of color, most of whom did not step foot in a classroom at all in March, the survey found.

"While we've made important progress, I will not be satisfied until 100 percent of schools are safely open for full-time in-person learning for all students," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said this month.

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