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What The Delta Variant Means For The Return To School

A student raises their hand in a classroom at Tussahaw Elementary school on Wednesday, Aug. 4. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
A student raises their hand in a classroom at Tussahaw Elementary school on Wednesday, Aug. 4. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

This week, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions dropped their opposition to COVID vaccine mandates for their members.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers represent a combined 4.7 million teachers.

Both had previously said that vaccines for teachers should only be by choice. But  on Wednesday, the AFT reversed that stance.

Are teachers moving the goal posts? We discuss what the Delta variant means for school this fall.

Guests

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. (@CecilyMyartCruz)

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. (@rweingarten)

Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist who covers economics, public policy, politics and culture. (@crampell)

Also Featured

Kathryn Vaughn, visual arts teacher at Brighton Elementary in Brighton, Tennessee. Member of the National Education Association.

Diana Daniele, mom to a 14-year-old student who attends a LAUSD school.

Interview Highlights

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom decided to make a statewide mandate for vaccinations for teachers. What is the union’s response to that?

Cecily Myart-Cruz: “Everyone is nervous about this Delta variant and the rising infection numbers in children. Our UTLA board of directors, we’re not opposed to a vaccine mandate. You know, our UTLA policies are set out at our local level and through those democratic structures. It’s a tough decision. It’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of our educators and educational school support staff have been vaccinated. And so we know that here we are at a really pivotal moment. But we do realize with all of the anxiety and the excitement and frustration, we know that students need to be in school full-time. And so we have to make those spaces of learning as safe as possible. And that’s what we’re going to create.”

Has COVID had an impact on children’s education in Los Angeles? 

Cecily Myart-Cruz: “Being an educator for more than 26 years and the conversation around learning loss, I believe it’s the wrong frame. Our young people are smart, they’re engaging and always learning, even in a pandemic. While our students were physically out of the classroom for almost two years, it is extremely counterintuitive to say they’ve suffered learning loss. While some of our students may not have learned everything described in their grade level curriculum, all of our babies learned.

“I’m a firm believer in the growth mindset, and during this pandemic, our students learned how to be resilient. They learned flexibility, they learned how to adapt. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So to be honest, any learning loss declarations are definitely premature until our young people are physically back in their educational communities, their classrooms, and we educators are allowed to assess where they are.”

On promoting a ‘growth mindset’ in education

Cecily Myart-Cruz: “I want to talk about a deficit mindset. And as an educator, I don’t want to label our students in a deficit mindset. We should be promoting a growth mindset. And the fixation on deficit and loss negates what perseverance and and other work resilience students learn during this time. Now, I did say in my comments prior is the fact that educators are the ones who will be able to assess our students. So when students come back full time, starting Monday for us in Los Angeles, we’re going to see socialization and we’re going to see trauma-informed curriculum and curricula that will help our students.

“Our students had to navigate between the adult world and so far. And I want to focus on gains. So to me, measuring students in a deficit model is not a win. We are acutely aware and concerned about the needs of our students. And when students return back to class full time, then we will see them make leaps and bounds. So that’s that’s what my position is on learning loss. I think it’s driven by standardization. I also think that the goalposts have always been moved, especially in the most marginalized communities.”

On supporting a vaccine mandate in schools 

Randi Weingarten: “We should be working with — not opposing — our employers in terms of any of their vaccine policies. … 90% of our education members have taken the vaccine volitionally. And they have and they know, as you just said, that it is the single most effective way to keep themselves, their families and our communities safe. But we are in a period of time of tremendous disinformation, even just what happened before on somebody misrepresenting my position. Jonathan Chait didn’t call me. Fox didn’t call me. They just wanted to misrepresent it.

“We’re in a position with tremendous polarization, tremendous distrust and tremendous misinformation. And so we believed and we did this in October 2020. … We believe that the best way, the most efficacious way to get people vaccinated was to educate and by voluntary adoption. And so I felt that given the Delta variant, I felt there was a need to reconsider that policy. And, you know, this week we did and we unanimously voted on Wednesday that we should be working with our employers on vaccination policies, including vaccine mandates.

“You know, people have to have a voice in it so that in labor parlance, that means bargaining the impact, not opposing it. So I think that the Delta variant has  … pushed people to look at what we need to do for our communities. So I feel good that both unions, both education unions are out there now saying that we need to be aggressive about vaccination policies.

“And my union has said that whatever policy the employer wants to put together, whether it’s this vaccination or test, whether it’s vaccinate everyone, that we will roll up our sleeves and work with them on this and bargain the impact. And I’m really glad that the private sector is doing this too. All too often, you know, it is up to teachers and nurses to do things. But it’s good that Disney has a vaccination mandate. It’s good that United has it. It’s all too often that we feel like we and parents are the ones that have all the responsibility on our shoulders. That’s who teachers are. But it’s good that these other employers are doing it as well.”

On the education achievement gap and the importance of in-person learning

Catherine Rampell: “We need to be moving heaven and earth to get kids back into classrooms. It sounds like Randy agrees with that as well. And my great concern is that the kids who are already kind of at the wrong end of the achievement gap or hurt the most last year as a result of remote schooling, despite the heroic attempts of teachers and schools to to try to adapt, it just did not measure up.

“You know, I think the stars were just not aligned to make it work out. And we really need these kids, we need kids in general, but we especially need the most vulnerable children back in classrooms so that they can make up for whatever ground they may have lost in the past year.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.