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Healthcare

CDC Updates School Guidelines For Students Returning In The Fall

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says students should return to in-person learning this fall. Before vaccines became widely available, many teachers resisted that step, but in May, national teachers union leaders supported the full return to class. So how to do it safely? Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers is on the line. Good morning.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Then we'll just note you're in a moving vehicle, which just makes it interesting to listen to, frankly. Hard to believe, but in - I don't know - four, five, six weeks, a lot of kids are going to be back in school. Are schools ready?

WEINGARTEN: Look; schools will be ready. The most important piece is that we're - you know, we're all dedicated to wanting to be schools open full time, full on, for all kids. And mostly we're going to have to convince parents who are apprehensive because of what has happened in terms of their own family lives with COVID or what has happened because of other kinds of obstacles to come back to in-person learning. We know in-person learning is really important. We were waiting for the CDC guidance that we've asked for since pretty much the middle of May. And it's grounded in common sense and in science. And I think it's the last piece, with the other resources, to help districts around the country plan.

INSKEEP: You know, you mentioned convincing parents. Do me a favor and convince me because one of my kids is under 12 and therefore can't be vaccinated yet. What is your advice for elementary school communities, where kids are generally too young to vaccinate?

WEINGARTEN: Wear a mask, which is what the CDC has said. Look; you know, I think that the CDC has - so let me start it this way.

INSKEEP: Sure.

WEINGARTEN: No. 1, they have said - and we have seen it in terms of our own members, which is part of the reason why, in May, I said that there was no reason that we shouldn't reopen schools fully in September. We know that in-school learning is really important. The AFT has tried to figure out ways for in-school learning to be reopened since last April 2020. And the game-changer has really been the vaccines. And 9 out of 10 of my members have taken the vaccines. You know, we - so in terms of kids, particularly kids who are under 12, what we've also learned, in January through April and May, is that when you have the layered mitigation of 3-feet physical distancing and masks, you can really reduce transmission. When you - or eradicate transmission. When you have the ventilation systems working well, you can create a lot more clean air, which is important for kids regardless.

So when I say wear a mask, I know they're uncomfortable. Look; I'm an asthmatic. It's uncomfortable for me as well. But we know that mask-wearing, washing hands, 3-feet physical distancing, really, really help to reduce or stop transmission. And we know the vaccines do the same thing, but what they also do is they help create herd immunity. So hopefully Pfizer, Moderna, J&J will have vaccines that are safe for kids under 12 soon. But at the end of the day, it's really important to have kids in school. I've watched...

INSKEEP: Very - if I might, very briefly, are you comfortable with older students returning to school without masking, just as normal, as before?

WEINGARTEN: Well, I think that older students - look; the CDC guidance says if you're not - if you don't - if you're not vaccinated, you should wear a mask, and I believe in that. Frankly, you know, the only concern I have is, you know, how it stigmatizes people. So there are places like Hawaii and California that are saying, we're going to still have everybody wear a mask until - you know, until everybody, you know, either has a vaccine or we know a process to make sure that we know, you know, who has and who hasn't or until we, you know, deal with all of these variants and have herd immunity.

INSKEEP: Right.

WEINGARTEN: But that's why - you know, but different districts are going to deal with this in a different way. The real issue becomes - how do we create a welcoming and safe environment for all? And I think the CDC has helped us here.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or so, how much ground have students lost the past year and a half?

WEINGARTEN: You know, it's hard to know because students are pretty resilient. And they are - you know, and they've learned lots and lots of different ways. So we need to give teachers the freedom to actually teach and assess, and we need to have those other resources that will help us.

INSKEEP: Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. Thanks so much.

WEINGARTEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.