Most Teachers Say They're Comfortable Going Back To School, But Only With Strict Safety Measures

A new poll from the American Federation of Teachers finds that teachers support school reopenings, but only if certain conditions are met, including vaccine prioritization.

A vast majority of educators in one of the country’s major teachers unions say they would be comfortable returning to the classroom if a number of strict safety measures are met, including getting prioritized for vaccines and giving at-risk staff the flexibility to work remotely, according to an internal poll of members conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and reviewed by HuffPost. They also say that distance learning hasn’t been working well.

The poll, which surveyed a representative sample of 800 members, including 600 teachers and 200 other paraprofessionals and school-related personnel earlier this month, comes as debates around school reopenings have reached a fever pitch. President Joe Biden, while initially promising to make sure most K-8 schools open during the first 100 days of his presidency, recently faced flak for seemingly scaling down the ambitions of his plan. At the same time, Republican leaders have seized on the issue, painting teachers unions as intransigent villains in an attempt to win back suburban voters who are frustrated by distance learning.

While teachers in the poll say they support Biden’s school reopening plans, they also say they consider a number of measures essential to in-person learning during COVID-19. While some of these measures include basic tasks like daily deep cleaning of school facilities, others are expensive and provide logistical challenges, like regular rapid testing procedures.

Over 90% of educators say it’s essential that all schools have nurses, that all students and staff wear masks and that everyone is provided with personal protective equipment. Eighty-six percent of educators also say it’s important for teachers and school staff to be given priority for receiving coronavirus vaccines and that at-risk staff have the flexibility to work remotely if they choose. Recent union fights around reopening in cities across the country have centered around these issues.

A woman holds a sign during the Occupy City Hall Protest and Car Caravan hosted by Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago, Illinois, on Aug. 3, 2020.
A woman holds a sign during the Occupy City Hall Protest and Car Caravan hosted by Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago, Illinois, on Aug. 3, 2020.

If steps like these are taken, 85% of educators in the poll said they would be comfortable returning to school. Eighty percent said they approve of President Biden making school reopenings a priority.

Many of the measures teachers consider crucial echo Friday’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blueprint outlining how schools could reopen safely, which emphasized that reopening decisions should be weighed against community transmission rates. Though the CDC says teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations, it stops short of saying that vaccinations are a prerequisite for reopening. If following CDC recommendations, over 90% of schools in the country could not currently reopen.

The blueprint has received praise from education groups and school leaders who have been starved for guidance, but has gotten blowback from reopening advocates who say the group raised the bar for reopening too high, effectively locking out millions of students from in-person school.

The American Federation of Teachers represents over 1.7 million members, including local chapters like the Chicago Teachers Union, which recently reached a deal with the city to return to the classroom after a highly scrutinized public battle with the city’s mayor. The union’s president, Randi Weingarten, a political powerhouse and close ally of Biden, has been preaching her support for school reopenings if safety measures are met. At the same time, local AFT chapters continue to engage in acrimonious battles with their districts and local leaders.

Teachers want a path to safely return to their classrooms because they understand the importance of in-school learning for their kids,” said Weingarten in a press release associated with the poll. “This poll raises the question of whether, if the last administration had provided educators with a coherent national plan and the resources to fund it 10 months ago — a plan along the lines of the Biden administrations — and had we implemented the guardrails recommended by the AFT in the early days of the pandemic, we would even be having this noxious debate.”

Teachers say they are most prioritizing their safety and that of their students, as opposed to issues of learning and education. Per the poll, 57% of educators say “protecting the health of students and staff” should be the most important factor in “deciding whether, how, and when schools should re-open.” Only 21% listed “limiting community spread” as the most important factor, and 17% said it should be “meeting the educational and social needs of students.” Research has highlighted potentially stark learning losses for students, especially low-income and vulnerable ones, if they continue to learn at home. Additionally, some places have seen a devastating rise in student suicides.

Nearly 80% of teachers who participated in the survey are currently teaching fully in-person or working under a hybrid model mix of in-person and distance teaching. But fewer believe this is how schools should currently look, with 34% expressing support for remote learning only, 40% saying they should be hybrid, and 24% saying they should be fully in-person.

Notably, educators’ divides on these issues seems to somewhat reflect public opinion at large. A recent HuffPost/YouGov survey found that 26% of Americans think schools should be fully reopened and 31% think they should be online-only. This survey also found widespread support for teachers unions, even as they continue to come under increasing scrutiny by politicians and the media. Other surveys have recently found a slight uptick in support for teachers unions.

In the AFT poll, of those who are back in the classroom at least part time, 63% have said they felt comfortable returning to work and nearly 70% say they’ve been satisfied with how their local school system has handled the pandemic thus far. Teachers who have not yet returned in-person appear the most concerned about potential safety risks.

A vast majority of educators, at 84%, have personally purchased PPE for themselves or their students.

At the same time, most educators say that distance learning isn’t working nearly as well as in-person. Nearly 80% of surveyed educators say that distance learning is working “somewhat” or “much less well.”

Educators, at over 81%, say they most trust the CDC to make good decisions about how and when schools should reopen. Their second most-trusted source is their union. They least trust parent organizations like the PTA in making these decisions, at 47%.

The survey found that 23% of AFT members are already vaccinated. Indeed, the National Education Association, the nation’s other major teachers union, recently found that 18% of its members had been vaccinated. Many more AFT educators said they plan to get their vaccination as soon as possible.

Still, a minority, at 13%, said they don’t plan to get the vaccine at all.

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