Photo: Marco Fieber/Flickr
Photo: Marco Fieber/Flickr

USA: Teacher union presents roadmap to safely reopen schools and communities

published 5 May 2020 updated 9 June 2021

The American Federation of Teachers has launched a blueprint providing guidance for safely and responsibly reopening school buildings and other institutions and imagining a ‘new normal’ for public education, public health, and the economy in the age of COVID-19.

While the American people are eager to return to some semblance of “normal”, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has produced a blueprint that introduces five core pillars needed “to reopen the country based on the science as well as educator and healthcare expertise—not on politics or wishful thinking”.

The AFT’s “Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” is the result of intense collaboration between public health professionals, union leaders, and frontline workers to prepare for what happens in the period between flattening the curve and truly eradicating COVID-19.

Five-point plan

According to the AFT, the following measures are required to gradually, responsibly, and safely reopen society:

  1. Maintain physical distancing until the number of new cases declines for at least 14 consecutive days. Reducing the number of new cases is a prerequisite for transitioning to reopening plans on a community-by-community basis.
  2. Put in place the infrastructure and resources to test, trace, and isolate new cases. Transitioning from community-focused physical distancing and stay-in-place orders to case-specific interventions requires ramping up the capacity to test, trace, and isolate each new case.
  3. Deploy the public health tools that prevent the virus’ spread and align them with education strategies that meet the needs of students.
  4. ​Involve workers, unions, parents, and communities in all planning. Each workplace and community faces unique challenges related to COVID-19. To ensure that reopening plans address those challenges, broad worker and community involvement is necessary. They must be engaged, educated, and empowered.
  5. Invest in recovery: Do not abandon America’s communities or forfeit America’s future. These interventions will require more — not less — investment in public health and in schools, universities, hospitals, and local and state governments. Strengthening communities should be a priority in the recovery.

The blueprint acknowledges that schools, “in addition to educating students and acting as centers of the community, enable parents to work outside the home, meaning their safe reopening is a pivotal — if not the most pivotal — factor in remaking the country”.

The document shows how, in response to the crisis, it is necessary to plan and align logistics, educational strategies, and public health approaches into one coherent response. And this response is expected to evolve as the data, and the facts, change.

Slow but steady

The AFT acknowledges that reopening prematurely by relaxing stay-in-place restrictions and resuming large public gatherings runs the risk of undoing the work of the last two months. A premature return to full commercial activity risks a second surge of infections and a second lockdown as is currently happening in Singapore, said the union. Even once public health officials deem it safe to reopen, doing so without the necessary precautions could be deadly, the education union cautioned.

Science-based approach

“America is staring down a singular challenge that will require all of us to come together and negotiate a safe path forward,” said Randi Weingarten, AFT President and member of Education International’s Executive Board. “By drawing on facts and science, and the expertise of educators and healthcare practitioners, we have drafted a bold five-point plan that aligns necessary public health tools, student instructional needs, and logistics to gradually—but safely, equitably, and intentionally—reopen our schools and communities.

“The input of educators and healthcare workers, as well as parents, is crucial in making any reopening plan work. They are the eyes and ears and are indispensable in making any plan work safely and effectively. We hope this blueprint will be the start of a real discussion on reopening schools, universities, and other workplaces that allows our workers and families not only to dream of a safe and welcoming future, but to realise it.”

The AFT plan is available here

And you can read Education International’s Guidance to reopening schools and education institutions here