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“Circumstances Have Changed”: Union President Pushes Vaccine Mandate for Teachers

AFT President Randi Weingarten backed the move on Meet the Press on Sunday.

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During an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said that she personally backed mandating COVID-19 vaccines for teachers across the country. She also hinted that the AFT, the second-largest teachers union in the country, would be looking at making changes to their vaccine policy recommendations.

The AFT represents 1.7 million members across the country, and with some 90 percent of educators and staff in schools already fully vaccinated, Weingarten said that teachers “are probably the most vaccinated profession right now.”

That might be true, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t educators who are ready to resist a potential mandate.

Research from EdWeek has found that the 10-11 percent of educators surveyed who aren’t vaccinated are potentially quite hesitant. Members of this group “don’t intend to get vaccinated against the virus” according of a survey conducted this past summer. So it’s possible that mandates will be required to ensure that the last unvaccinated educators do end up getting the jab, so long as they don’t have medical exemptions.

Weingarten’s comments reflect a change for the AFT, where the initial position was that vaccines should be voluntary. The reason for her change of heart? The “alarming” spread of the Delta variant. Reuters reports that the US has reported 100,000 new cases a day over the past few days—24,000 in Florida alone.

“Circumstances have changed,” Weingarten said, noting that it “weighs really heavily” on her “that kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated.”

“As a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates,” she told Chuck Todd.

Weingarten did note that there are legitimate religious and medical exemptions to getting the COVID-19 vaccine. In those cases, teachers could be tested weekly for COVID. 

Indeed, total positive cases in kids jumped to over 70,000 during the week of July 22-29, an 84 percent jump over the previous week. Kids made up almost 20 percent of new cases in that week alone.

Given that so many children cannot be vaccinated—the vaccine hasn’t been approved for children below 12—and the rate of vaccination among kids 12 to 15 is pretty dismal, the reality is that schools are potential hotbeds for infections in areas with a lot of community spread. As many teachers as possible need to be vaccinated, but vaccines are only one part of a comprehensive public health strategy.

A number of mitigation strategies also need to be undertaken in order to ensure schools can open as safely as possible. Mask-wearing is one of the most important, so it’s is frustrating that at least 10 states have banned schools from setting their own mask rules. In one of those states, Florida, 32 kids per day were hospitalized for COVID-19 during the last week of July.

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll has found that more parents support mask mandates than vaccine requirements. Sixty percent of parents of K-12 students supported mask mandates for unvaccinated staff and teachers, and over half were in support of mask mandates for unvaccinated students.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of K-12 parents back vaccine mandates for staff (47 percent) and students (43 percent).

Social distancing, air filtering, testing and tracing, mask-wearing, and as many people in school buildings being vaccinated as possible are all mitigation strategies the CDC has recommended for schools to reopen. The reality is that the leaders preventing these strategies from being implemented are putting students, faculty, and school staff at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, getting sick, and dying.