(JTA) — As president of the American Federation of Teachers since 2008, Randi Weingarten has become the public face of the messy politics of figuring out how to educate 50 million children during a pandemic.
It’s a familiar role for Weingarten, who often travels from her Manhattan home to her office in Washington, D.C., in order to lobby on behalf of the union’s 1.7 million members.
In recent months, as vaccines have become more readily available and, under the Biden administration’s direction, states have prioritized vaccinating teachers, it has grown safer for adults to work in school buildings. But nearly half the country’s public school students are still attending school remotely, a product of complicated logistics, parent preferences and, at least in some places, resistance by teachers to returning to in-person instruction.
This last force has generated criticism of teachers’ unions, such as Weingarten’s, for exercising outsized force in the lives of American families. Why should the teachers union in San Francisco or Los Angeles, for example, get to overrule the wishes of families who want their children in school?
It’s a question that angers Weingarten — and she has a specific message for U.S. Jews who have joined in the criticism.
“American Jews are now part of the ownership class,” she said. “What I hear when I hear that question is that those who are in the ownership class now want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it. Am I saying that everything we do is right? No. Are people in Los Angeles fearful? Yes.”
Weingarten, 63, knows to whom she speaks. She’s been married since 2018 to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a Manhattan synagogue serving the LGBTQ community, and grounds her advocacy in Jewish values. She says religion represents striving for a “more just place, a place that is kinder, that is gentler, a place where we teach our children that from generation to generation, we will do better, and we will be kinder, and we will be more just to the stranger as well as to the family.”
Weingarten spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from her office in Washington on March 9. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: How close are we to getting students back in school full-time, and what are the steps it’s going to take to get to that place?
Weingarten: I often tease that I’m not a scientist and I don’t even play one on TV. And I’m not sure that the epidemiologists or anyone else could answer that question with 100% certainty. But I do think that we are on our way to reopening school buildings for in-person learning.
We’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks, and we’ve learned a lot in the last few months, about what to and not to do. And there is a roadmap now. But you have to actually see if people will do what the roadmap requires.
The roadmap is essentially three things: the mitigation strategies that the CDC has proposed, which are really good and really important; testing as an early warning system that helps you see asymptomatic spread; and access to vaccines.
School districts that have created trust have done so through transparency and collaboration with parents and with their educators. Virtually every school district in New York state and in Connecticut is reopened, many of them have reopened in New Jersey. But the ones that have done well are the ones that had this formula of mitigation strategies and access to vaccines.
Ultimately, what does that mean in terms of this summer? And what does that mean in terms of next year? Let’s say that we can get most adults vaccinated. Let’s say that we know that the trials work out well for kids and we can get kids vaccinated. Let’s say that we have been able to tackle the variants. Then there should be no question that schools will be reopened in the fall with maybe just people wearing masks and not having much physical distancing. And that would be fabulous.
But the question has a lot to do with what we as people in America are willing to do to tackle this disease. And if you’ve got more states that do what Texas did, we’re going to be in bad shape. If you have states that basically say “stay the course — we need to keep on wearing our masks, and we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible” — then we’re going to be in good shape.
There’s also an issue of data collection. I have the Burbio statistics here. But can you believe that we have to use this private sector entity? We should have statistics from the federal government!
We asked [former Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos to keep these statistics. She said no. She also said no to waivers for standardized tests — she didn’t much mind having standardized tests this year. Centers for Disease Control director Rochelle Walensky told us last night on Rachel Maddow how terrible their statistics have been as well, and that they’re getting money in the American Rescue Plan to keep more accurate statistics.
But what has happened is that in the last three or four weeks, we’ve gone from about one-third of the K-5’s being virtual to now less than 20%. So you’re seeing cities like Cleveland and Philadelphia announce their reopening plans together with their unions.
President Biden did a good thing by saying that he wants the majority of K-8 schools reopened for in-person learning in his first 100 days — knowing that the guidance has to be followed and knowing that they need resources in order to do so.
We’re going to make that goal. High schools, like colleges, are going to be harder because high school kids operate like adults and college kids, and they don’t follow the rules as much as younger kids do. But New York City is going to reopen its high schools using aggressive testing. And there’s $50 billion that’s in the American Rescue Plan for testing. We need to have aggressive testing and tracing in a bunch of schools, particularly for middle school and high school students, and their educators, so that we can actually make sure you don’t just open but you stay open.
A lot of private schools, including a lot of Jewish day schools, have been open for in-person instruction for a large part of the pandemic without massive outbreaks, fairly successfully. What factors made that possible that weren’t able to translate on a larger scale?
They did a lot of testing. A lot of the private schools got money from the [Paycheck Protection Program] very early, so they could actually put mitigation factors in and testing in. And that’s what they did. And frankly they were really, really careful about it. My friends whose kids are in Jewish private schools talk to me at length about how much they had to increase tuition and how the schools got money from PPP. Other private schools got money from PPP as well, and frankly, the testing piece is a really important component.
I would imagine that your job in some ways got easier with the election of a new administration. But I can imagine that also there’s a tough balance between working with the administration and answering the concerns of your members. How do you navigate those politics?
I think my job actually didn’t get any easier with the election of the new administration. What happened was that we became much more involved in policy. We spent a lot of time in meetings because the new administration actually wants to hear input as opposed to fighting from the outside.
For example, we begged the Trump administration and DeVos to gather data about the pandemic, give us the resources that we needed to feed kids, to deal with the digital divide, to give us more space, to give us more educators and not do the cuts. We begged them for safety guidance.
The things that we asked the last administration for, this administration has been doing. I think what happens is that you have to be transparent and honest. You can’t say one thing to your members and another thing to the administration. And the people that try to do that, they’re going to have a much harder job.
But if you actually believe, as we do, that schools need to be reopened but they need to be safe and that it is not a binary choice, then frankly, this has been a time of much more responsibility. Because it also means that you have to meet fear with facts and you have to really engage with people. How do we make it safe? What do we do to create that kind of assurance?
Frankly, the last few weeks have been incredibly hard and tough. Because we’re on a plateau. We’re in an environment where there’s been such misinformation, such distrust, and you have to rebuild a lot of things really quickly because of the polarization and the division that had happened.
When you actually support somebody for president, they’re not going to be with you 100%. There’s going to be things that they do that are different than what you would like them to do. But every difference should not automatically make somebody an enemy.
For example, we thought that it was shortsighted of the Biden administration to not actually allow states full waivers of standardized tests — I mean, bringing kids in for standardized tests, that’s the first thing they bring kids in for? That’s pretty stressful!
We thought that this was the opportunity to actually have local assessments to figure out where kids are, not wait for months and months for standardized testing to get back. And we thought that they missed that opportunity. But it’s just one of any number of things. Look at what they’ve just done in terms of the American Rescue Act. It’s pretty remarkable that this administration, so early on, is finding a way to meet the needs of Americans. With the child tax credit, they are trying to halve child poverty. That is really bold and really important.
So I find that we’re very busy in the engagement with administration, trying to put our best ideas out there, and having a real discussion about those ideas. And that’s really awesome. Whether you win the policy argument or not, it’s pretty awesome to have a voice.
I think some people are very skeptical of the power that they perceive teachers unions to have. They look at, for example, the ongoing struggles in Los Angeles, where they see this big dollar figure of aid being given for school reopening and are baffled by the perceived resistance of teachers to going back to work.
I have a very pointed response here for Jews making this argument.
American Jews are now part of the ownership class. Jews were immigrants from somewhere else. And they needed the right to have public education. And they needed power to have enough income and wealth for their families that they could put their kids through college and their kids could do better than they have done. Both economic opportunity through the labor movement and an educational opportunity through public education were key for Jews to go from the working class to the ownership class.
What I hear when I hear that question is that those who are in the ownership class now want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it. Am I saying that everything we do is right? No. Are people in Los Angeles fearful? Yes.
One in three people have had COVID in L.A. The disease has significantly hurt Black and brown communities, many of whom are in the leadership of UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles, the main teachers union). You have to meet fear with facts, just like you have to do about vaccine hesitancy. And that’s what’s happening right now, just like it’s happening all across the country. It had to happen in Chicago, it had to happen in Philly, it had to happen in Cleveland. And so we need to actually have this roadmap that works, working together, and talking to people about how we overcome this. And this is what I see in my union.
We just did a poll at the beginning of February: 88% of my members nationally — paraprofessionals and teachers — said that they were in favor of the AFT plan to reopen in-person learning with the mitigation strategies, the testing and vaccine access.
And 85% would feel comfortable being in school with that plan, including 73% of people who were still virtual. That gives you a sense of where teachers are. They’re scared. Seventy-one percent in the same poll said they were scared about bringing COVID home to their family. So we have to meet fear with facts. I wish we had 1/100th of the power the right wing attributes to us. We’d do a heck of a lot better job in actually educating our kids and focusing on excellence and equity.
I hear that. So you see it as a privileged argument?
Oh my God, it’s a totally privileged argument. And I’m not saying that everything we do is right. It isn’t. But not everything bankers do is right. And not everything lawyers do is right. It’s just a matter of workers having to have some degree of power and some degree of voice.
Teachers are up against 40 years of the Chamber of Commerce and many other groups actually fighting to erode workers’ rights. Teachers are one of the few groups that are still organized.
I would actually argue that when teachers feel safe to go to in-person learning, that gives more assurance to parents than anything else.
Now there are groups that I disagreed with. There were some locals, not my own — remember I’ve said often that local unions are not monolithic and teacher unions are not monolithic. We’ve been clear about what the roadmap is. I do think in L.A. they had a point about saying that vaccines had to be a prerequisite because of the amount of COVID that was there.
But I thought that a local that said that we have to wait until kids get vaccinated, that was wrong. I mean, we’re still in the trials for children’s vaccinations.
One of my closest friends is the spouse of a rabbi, and I watch her doing so much unpaid and unthanked emotional labor, putting in so much time to the needs of her congregation. What has it been like for you, your spouse and your family to navigate this new era of new responsibilities?
We have seen it in a lot of different ways. My sister is an intensive care pediatrician at Montefiore [Medical Center in New York City]. My brother-in-law was on the COVID unit in his hospital; he’s a radiologist. And my union represents over 200,000 nurses.
Last March, my wife Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and I decided that we were staying in New York City. We said we’re staying in our city, and we are going to stay where we’re needed.
We were in the shul the Friday before everything shut down — there was a bat mitzvah that Friday and Saturday — there was a lot of short social distancing, and it was the last one that was there. During the pandemic, the community suffered a lot of death. And they suffered a lot of illness.
Sharon is amazing in terms of the reservoir that she has to tend to the congregation. I thought what they did was pretty remarkable. I learned a lot from it. And we did some of that as well — a lot of care and feeding.
For example, they had a town hall every week. And I thought that was a great idea. So we [at the AFT] put a weekly Facebook town hall together, too. We also found ways to help with the care and feeding of people. We gave out books to homeless kids, we did food banks.
But Sharon in particular, and CBST, has basically worked around the clock to be there for congregants and to be there for congregants’ friends and families. Every morning, Sharon does a Psalms class. When we’re both home together, thankfully, we have a big enough apartment and high-end high speed internet — which we increased during this period of time! Sharon will be in one room during her Psalms class, and I’ll be in another room Zooming in other ways. And occasionally we’ll meet in the hall and just say, “How’s your day?” And we try to have dinner together when we can. But the emotional toll has been huge.
You described yourself as “deeply religious” in a 2010 interview with the Forward. How do you think about manifesting Jewish values in the work that you do?
I’m not deeply observant anymore, although when I was growing up, I was both deeply observant and deeply religious.
When I was growing up, I was actually shomer Shabbos. I actually kept to kashrut. Although when I was growing up, I didn’t imagine that I would be married to a rabbi, which I am very, I’m very happy to have my second role as being the rebbetzin. And I really, really love going to shul on Friday nights, both in Zoom as well as in shul.
What I mean by being deeply religious is that faith is really important to me. Gratitude is really important to me. The sense of doing for others as you would want others to do for you, that the sense of repairing the world, “justice, justice thou shall pursue,” that to whom much is given, much is required. And that sense of how we make the world a better place — a more just place, a place that is kinder, that is gentler, a place where we teach our children that from generation to generation, we will do better, and we will be kinder, and we will be more just to the stranger as well as to the family.
And so that’s what being deeply religious means to me. And you can see it is very much a part of my work.
Education is an opportunity agent. And this is part of what I love about what Joe Biden has done in the last few weeks. He’s made it clear that labor unions are an important tool to creating fairness in the economy, to creating equity in the economy, to having responsible capitalism. By workers being together and being able to actually have power to increase their wages and conditions, they have a path to the middle class. And in the public sector, we can make the quality of the services we deliver better. Because together you can do what’s impossible to do alone. And together, listening to the collective wisdom of those who are doing the work, you can actually make the services better.