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‘It’s not magical thinking': Teachers union boss blasts federal government on coronavirus response

Aarthi Swaminathan
·Reporter
·4 min read

The president of America's second-largest teachers union believes that the federal government and schools already have a roadmap to reopen safely and are largely choosing to ignore it.

“The bottom line is … scientists and epidemiologists have basically told us how to reopen schools in the country,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told Yahoo Finance’s The First Trade (video above). “It’s not wishful thinking, it’s not trying to divide parents versus teachers.”

Though many schools across the country have tried to reopen, such as in Georgia, several were confronted with cases of students and staff being infected with coronavirus.

Cases in the south are beginning to subside. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
Cases in the south are beginning to subside. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Weingarten named a list of things school can start do to reopen schools safely: “It’s about reducing community spread to a level that is less than 5%… reducing transmission on a day-to-day basis to a level that’s under 1% … having testing, tracing, and isolation, so that an outbreak does not become a surge… [and] making sure that you don’t have COVID transmitted in the school by having masks and ventilation and cleaning and physical distancing.”

Epidemiologists generally agree that community spread of coronavirus cannot be controlled if the positivity rate of those tested is above 5%. The 7-day moving average for the U.S. overall was 7.2% as of Friday, with variations by state.

(Source: Johns Hopkins University)
(Source: Johns Hopkins University)

Where’s the money?

In any case, Weingarten added,“all that stuff costs money.”

And based on her conversations with governors across the country, including with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Weingarten noted that that the key issue school districts were facing right now is funding.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, provided K-12 schools and colleges with a total of $13 billion to help with the shift to remote learning in the spring and expenses related to reopening schools in the fall. And while the Education Department previously told Yahoo Finance that only 4% of that funding has been used, officials say that bureaucracy is holding up a lot of the funding.

In any case, Weingarten is calling for $400 billion in federal funding to help both schools and colleges. And as a preemptive move, the AFT authorized affiliates to stage strikes as a “last resort” if teachers’ concerns are not assuaged. Detroit teachers planned a vote next week on whether to launch a safety strike over the fact that they are forced to return to an “unsafe environment.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), addresses the audience of public school teachers during the AFT convention in Detroit, Michigan, July 28, 2012.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), addresses the audience of public school teachers during the AFT convention in Detroit, Michigan, July 28, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

‘We’re having a brain drain right now’

Even prior to the pandemic, some districts were finding it hard to fill teaching positions.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, that problem is worsening: Experienced teachers considering earlier retirements and districts are increasingly struggling to find substitute teachers, school nurses, and even bus drivers.

“We’re having a brain drain right now, because people are leaving the profession,” Weingarten said. “The fact that the president opened too quickly has … created the surge in these other places, [and] it’s creating a problem now in terms of recruiting.”

In the meantime, parents have taken to private tutoring for their children, opting for small groups or “learning pods” to bridge the learning gaps brought by remote learning. A recent NBC report noted one family was paying a private educator around $2,800 a month for classes. The Washington Post found a parent who was quoted $1,300 per child a month for 4 hours per week during the school year.

The education sector could be further damaged by the possibility that full-time teachers could go over to these pods to make more money. Fox 5 in D.C. found the teachers were actually advertising paid tutoring services as the district prepares to start the year through remote learning.

“Should we start in lots of places remotely? Yes,” Weingarten said. “When it’s safe, should we try to be in school? Yes. But we have to have these safeguards there, and they have to be enforceable.”

Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering education. If you have a story idea, or would like to share how your college or school is preparing to reopen, reach out to her at aarthi@yahoofinance.com

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