US teacher's union backs strikes to ensure schools reopen safely

The union's president blasted President Donald Trump for ordering schools to reopen as the virus continues to surge.

    A high school teacher holding a sign during a protest calling for schools to enforce mask wearing and to implement other safety measures ahead of schools reopening in Salt Lake City, Utah [AP Photo/Rick Bowmer]
    A high school teacher holding a sign during a protest calling for schools to enforce mask wearing and to implement other safety measures ahead of schools reopening in Salt Lake City, Utah [AP Photo/Rick Bowmer]

    One of the largest United States teachers' union is authorising its members to strike if their schools plan to reopen without proper safety measures in the middle of the global pandemic.

    The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution on Tuesday saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans. The group says school buildings should open only in areas where coronavirus infections are low enough and if schools enact certain safety measures.

    In announcing the measure, the union's president blasted President Donald Trump for ordering schools to reopen even as the virus continues to surge. Randi Weingarten called Trump's response "chaotic and catastrophic", saying it has left teachers angry and afraid.

    "We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators," Weingarten said in prepared remarks to the group's annual convention. "But if authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table."

    Union leaders approved the resolution Friday but announced it on Tuesday at the group's convention, which is being held online amid the pandemic.

    For weeks, Trump has pressed for a full reopening of the nation's schools. Last week, he acknowledged that some schools may need to delay a return to in-person instruction, but he was still asking Congress to withhold future virus relief to schools that fail to reopen.

    Some of the nation's largest districts have opted to start the school year online, including in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. Some are starting entirely online, while others are offering a mix of online and in-person instruction to reduce the number of students in school buildings.

    The union's resolution lays out conditions the group wants met for schools to reopen. It said schools must require masks, promote social distancing and update ventilation systems, among other measures.

    It also said schools should reopen only in areas with infection rates below 5 percent and transmission rates below 1 percent, and only if local officials have taken steps to trace and isolate cases.

    For many schools, more funding will be needed to reopen safely, the group said. It estimated the average school would need at least $1.2m, amounting to $116bn nationwide. The resolution said Trump and Senate Republicans have "have failed to negotiate and pass a new stimulus bill to address the resources vitally needed for reopening our schools".

    Desks are spaced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a classroom in Virginia
    Schools have enacted their own policies to try to protect the health of students and teacher during the pandemic [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

    The latest stimulus proposal from the White House and Senate Republicans includes $105bn for schools and colleges, though some of the money is only for schools that reopen for in-person classes. In May, the Democratic-led House included $100bn for schools - none of it limited to those holding on-site classes - but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said even more money is needed.

    In her speech, Weingarten said teachers want schools to reopen. Children need in-person instruction, she said, adding that remote instruction is "no substitute for it". But she said teachers needed to know they would be kept safe.

    Before Trump began pressing schools to reopen, she said, a union poll found that its members were comfortable returning if proper safeguards were in place.

    "Now, they're afraid and angry," she said. "Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills."

    Along with strikes, the union said it would fight unsafe reopening plans through lawsuits and labour grievances. The union's Florida chapter filed a lawsuit last week attempting to block the state's plan to reopen schools, which the suit called "reckless and unsafe".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies