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‘Vaccines are the single most important way’ of keeping schools in-person: Teachers union head

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The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the vital role vaccines play in maintaining in-school learning for students, the fears the Omicron variant presents to educators already feeling burnt out from the pandemic, and the political polarizations teachers are seeing within their own communities.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- Well schools across the country are grappling with a familiar challenge yet again-- how to safely conduct classes as we see the new COVID variant spread rapidly. We've already seen a number of school districts move courses online ahead of the holiday break. But with health experts warning that there could be a serious surge in January, will students be forced to stay home again. Let's bring in Randi Weingarten, she's American Federation of Teachers president. And, Randi, that is the question that you are facing, I imagine, from so many parents. You're on holiday break now. How are things going to look come January?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, most school districts-- first off, thank you for having me today. And most school districts are in session this week and in-person right now. Let me be really, really clear since, you know, there's a lot of misinformation about this.

Teachers and myself have said over and over and over again in-school learning is the key to helping us get through a recovery for our students. We know that. The safety measures are about trying to keep us in school and Omicron has now thrown us a new-- completely new set of challenges.

What we're waiting for is several answers. Number one, we know one was about transmissibility and another is about vaccine efficacy. And another is about just how dangerous Omicron is.

So, on transmissibility, we seem to be told that it is very, very, very transmissible. And you're seeing this now in terms of the rise of cases across the nation. But, number two, we are also seeing in preliminary data that vaccines and boosters are really effective. So that this may be very, very, very harmful to people who have not been vaccinated, but for people who have been vaccinated, this may be much less harmful. And that reiterates that we need to get everybody vaccinated. But we're going to still need the next couple of weeks to find out more. And so, thank God, we have this break right now.

- You mentioned waiting for the science and, to your point, we did get that study from Moderna yet again kind of reiterating that that third shot is, in fact, effective against the variant. With that said, would you support an across the board mandate for vaccines for students who are eligible?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look I-- and I know I took a lot of heat for this, but my union, you know, completely supported this as we looked at the evidence-- we were-- you know, we said in the summer because of Delta-- we went from saying that vaccines should be volitional for educators to saying that we needed to work with our employers, you know, through collective bargaining on their vaccine mandates. And I think that that really, really helped in places that were, you know-- that-- it helped to open schools that we had so many educators vaccinated-- 90% to 100% in many places.

I think what California is doing makes a lot of sense. What Gavin Newsom has said is that the semester after vaccines are fully authorized that they-- that the California schools will have vaccine mandates. Now, you have to have exceptions. You have to have exceptions for religious observance and beliefs. You have to have exceptions for medical issues. But if we know that vaccines are the single most important way of keeping people safe, keeping our kids safe, keeping our kids in school, keeping educators safe-- if we know that and we get by the day more information about, you know, how safe they are, then that's a way that we need to move.

- And what about for the younger kids? We saw New Orleans-- the school district there-- mandating vaccines for those five and older. Should it be expanded to that extent?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, that's why I'm saying that from my perspective-- what-- I mean, every single one of these places that are moving towards a vaccine mandate are doing so because vaccines have been a way of life forever. They need to be. They are efficacious. They need-- we needed the proof that they were safe. But, you know, there's a lot of anxiety in trauma right now. So that's why I'm suggesting that what California has done, which is to say that once they become fully authorized and go through all of the FDA procedures, then the semester after they should be mandated. I think that balances all of the interests here and you have-- because of the misinformation-- you got a lot of parents who were scared about it and we have to meet that-- we-- you know, we have to meet the polarization and the fear head on.

So the safety measures, including indoor masking, including washing hands, including vaccines, including good ventilation-- this is what keeps, as much as possible, schools safe. But we're seeing a huge increase in cases all across the country right now because of Omicron. We got to make sure that people are-- that if you're vaccinated, this is what we're hearing, this is the only silver lining right now that we know-- if you're vaccinated, you're not going to get really sick.

- What are you hearing from your members about staffing right now? You know, we've heard about labor shortages across the board in different sectors. I'd imagine teachers, especially having to deal with a lot right now. Number one, those challenges you pointed to, trying to navigate this back and forth between remote learning, in-person classes, also facing a lot of heat from parents too-- I mean, do you have the teachers in place to ride out this latest wave?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: In some places, yes. In a lot of places, no. Teachers are bone tired right now. And if there's one thing that I could wish for the new year is that the outside polarization and the forces that are attempting to create this division between teachers and parents-- let them take a rest. There's not-- it's not helpful to our kids that these outside forces are ginning this up day after day after day-- these politicians who are doing this so that they think that they can win elections.

We need teachers and parents to be each other's partners. That is how you create the trust in terms of our schools. And teachers have more challenges right now than I've ever seen in my entire working career because it's not just the challenges that we're going to be there because of a recovery after two years of disruption-- academic, social, and emotional. It's also all of these outside forces of this polarization, what happened with TikTok and with-- on a last Friday with this, you know, security threat and violence threat.

So, yes, there's huge shortages. But what we can do is we can hire more nurses, we can hire more guidance counselors, we can pay substitutes more, we can pay teachers more, we can actually try to figure out how to lower class size and get the people who are in the administrative officers into schools. There are things that we can do right now, but we have to make those issues a priority, including respecting that teachers are doing the best they can under really, really tough situations.

- And Randi you talked about how polarized schools have become. Let's talk about this new concepts law over in New Hampshire. You have the AFT filing a lawsuit against the state, saying essentially it bans-- it's not clear enough-- characterize this law for me as you see it and the challenges it poses to teachers in the state.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So, you know, New Hampshire actually has a really great set of curriculum and has always had. It's been one of the best in the nation about-- and how you teach history and how you make sure that in the teaching of history and current events that kids are exposed to the effects of racism, of sexism, of anti-Semitism, or things like that and the struggles in America, both the good and the bad in terms of what history has, you know, has said to us. And that's what New Hampshire has always done.

So in this zeal to actually kind of remake history and censor things out in the aftermath of-- or during the Trump administration that, you know-- and, you know, what happened in New Hampshire is they passed a law that makes it impossible for a regular social studies teacher-- and I was a regular high school social studies teacher for years-- they passed a law making it impossible for us to understand what we can and can't teach.

What is-- and what New Hampshire did then on top of that was they put a website up that says to outsiders, you know, rat on a teacher if you think a teacher is not teaching the right thing. And then this group, that started in Florida, put a bounty on teachers heads if there was a successful complaint made against a teacher. So we have several plaintiffs, parents and teachers, who are saying what the heck am I supposed to do right now?

I want to teach about the effects of not having of-- if you don't have a voting rights law right now, what happens if you're disabled and you really need to have a box? You need to have days before a Tuesday in November in order to be able to vote so that your caretaker can take you to vote that day and the caretaker can't take you that Tuesday. This is now evidently-- we cannot teach about this given the nature of the law. So we're saying this is void under the Constitution. Teachers want to teach what the New Hampshire law says because we know that that is best for kids-- kids to know the good and the bad of America.

- Randi, you use the word censorship. Is that what you think is happening here? You think teachers are self-censoring because of the backlash. And how many teachers are you hearing from that are saying, you know what, I'm done with this, I cannot deal with the politics in the classroom, and then stepping away from the profession.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, there's a lot of surveying-- there's a lot of surveys out right now. There's been several public-- we are surveying our members all the time-- that one in four teachers have said enough. I love my kids, I want to do this work. And if you hear from parents, parents know that their teachers-- their kids' teachers have been their lifelines this year. But, you know, there's a point where enough is enough and too much is too much.

And I'm hearing a lot from teachers that this year's conditions are the worst ever and this outside forces, these political forces that are ginning up, exploiting the anxiety and the trauma that people have right now-- it's really disgusting. It's enough-- there's enough hardship right now that even if everyone was working together, we'd have a really hard school year because of the disruptions. But all of this are terrible.

And so that's why we filed this lawsuit. It is about making sure that our kids know the good and the bad of our history. There's a lot of good, but there's a lot of struggle. And struggle, and learning it, and learning from it actually helps you be prepared for your life, for civics, for college, for career, for life. And that's what we try to do in schools. We try to prepare kids for their lives.

- Yeah, I don't think there's any argument. Teachers have had to juggle a lot this year. And, Randi, we always appreciate you having-- having you on the show. Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president. Happy holidays.

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