The two primary unions representing U.S. teachers have dropped their opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, a reversal that could pave the way for more requirements that school staff be vaccinated as a condition of employment.
The National Education Association, which represents three million teachers and other educators, said Thursday that it now supports proposals that workers either get their shots or submit to regular testing. Several local governments and school districts around the country are already moving to implement such plans.
The union had previously said vaccinations for teachers should be strictly voluntary. But in a statement, NEA President Becky Pringle said that vaccines were “the most powerful weapon” against the virus as caseloads increase around the country.
“[I]t is clear that the vaccination of those eligible is one of the most effective ways to keep schools safe, and they must be coupled with other proven mitigation strategies,” Pringle said.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, with 1.7 million members, revoked its earlier opposition to vaccine mandates as well. The union’s executive council passed a resolution on Wednesday night saying the union would not oppose vaccine requirements and would work with employers on crafting and implementing them.
The union had previously said vaccines for teachers should only be by choice.
“While we still believe the best way to increase vaccinations is through education and voluntary adoption, we want to be in a position to work with our employers on workplace vaccination policies, including how they’re implemented,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.
The fast rise of mandates among both public and private employers has put some unions in an awkward spot. Organized labor, just like the public at large, includes a not-insignificant share of vaccine skeptics who would rather not get the shots, despite the risks that remaining unvaccinated would pose to themselves and those around them at work. Union leaders who endorse requirements run the risk of alienating a share of their dues-paying membership.
Meanwhile, unions who oppose requirements run the risk of alienating the rest of their members and much of the public.
Weingarten had come out personally in favor of vaccine mandates on Sunday, saying the spread of the delta variant had changed her thoughts on the policy. She noted that children under 12 years old still cannot receive the vaccine, making the vaccination of school staff all the more important.
Earlier this week, Weingarten told HuffPost she’d worried that by endorsing mandates she could lose trust of members who so far refuse to get vaccinated. She said misinformation about vaccines had “seeped into our union.”
Teachers have been more likely to get vaccinated than the general public: Both NEA and AFT said their memberships have a vaccination rate of around 90%. Meanwhile, around 71% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Public pressure had made the opposition to mandates increasingly dicey from a political standpoint, since rising caseloads threaten to derail in-person school this fall. In explaining their changing stances, both NEA and AFT said they would prefer their local affiliates bargain over the mandates and what they look like, rather than fight them.
They also called for exemptions from the policy for workers who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons.
“Educators must have a voice in how vaccine requirements are implemented,” Pringle said.