Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks on the considerations schools face in terms of reopening, taking into account their individual needs as well as public health and CDC recommendations. Jacob Carpenter, education reporter at the Houston Chronicle, discusses best practices for framing stories related to this topic. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As you may know, CFR is an independent, nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. This webinar is part of CFR's Local Journalists Initiative created to help you connect the local issues you cover in your communities to global dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. I want to just remind everybody that today's webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be posted on our website at CFR.org/localjournalists.
We shared full bios for our speakers and host today prior to the call, so I'll just give you a few highlights on their distinguished backgrounds. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers’ union representing 1.7 million members. Prior to her election as the American Federation of Teachers president in 2008, she served twelve years as president of the United Federation of Teachers, representing over two hundred thousand educators in the New York City public school system. Jacob Carpenter is a reporter at the Houston Chronicle covering K-12 education. Prior to arriving in Texas, he spent a year as investigative reporting fellow for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And prior to that he reported for the Naples Daily News. And Carla Anne Robbins, our host, is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She's faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Previously she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. So thank you all for being with us today. I'm going to turn the conversation over to Carla to navigate covering school policies during COVID-19. So Carla, over to you.
ROBBINS: Great. Irina, thank you so much. We're going to chat up here just for about twenty or so minutes, and then we're going to throw it open to you guys because I'm sure you have a lot of questions. I'm not an expert in K-12 education. I know we have a lot to talk about and I have a lot to learn, although I have been studying. So first of all, full disclosure, something I only found out this week, which is I am a member of a union. I'm a member of the CUNY-PSC union, which I only found out this week. It's part of Randi Weingarten's union. So I am not going to recuse myself from asking questions, but I'm not going to write a story based on this. So that is the good recusal that exists here, but it's certainly not going to stop you guys from digging in intensely. So with that full disclosure, let's start. So Randi, if I may, or President Weingarten, if I may, can you start us with an update on what percentage of schools across the country have students back in the classroom? And is President Biden going to make his original commitment to reopen elementary and middle schools within his first hundred days?
WEINGARTEN: Yes, he's going to make his commitment. And no, we don't actually have an actual number because one of the things we asked Betsy DeVos to do in the midst of COVID was to track this. So we have the Burbio statistics, which is a private-sector attempt to put this together. We have our own statistics, which I'll tell you in a minute. The federal government is now attempting to pull together these statistics. But all the directions are going in the right direction, including, frankly, I think that President Biden is going to exceed his goal because the work that we've done in middle schools and the vaccines for young adults are starting to allow high schools to open more robustly as well. So what our numbers have been, I'll just tell you what our numbers are. We have canvassed all of our locals. 95 percent of the districts in which we represent people are open. It doesn't mean that everything's open five days a week, full-time, whatever, but they have in-person instruction—95 percent. 88 percent, this is probably the most important number, 88 percent of my pre-K-12 members in a deep-dive poll that we did April 1 are going to be in school this month—88 percent. I'm sure that that will grow even larger. 81 percent of my K-12 members have had, as of April 1, their vaccines or were specifically scheduled. And 90 percent of my members want to have vaccines because it will protect them and their families, and it will help them get back into school.
Last thing I'll say is this because I really wanted to debunk this as forcefully as I can. Our membership, yes, they were scared, but from last summer on, they have always wanted to be back in school. And in the polling—and we've done a lot of polling of them—the polling from last summer said if you can make it safe, 79 percent said they want to be back in school. And the polling that we just did, you know, that ended April 1, 88 percent said if we can have the layered mitigation, the testing, and the vaccine access, we want to be back in school. So that's where, I mean, I'm very proud of them, and that's where our union has been since last April trying to figure out how to be back in-person because we knew how important in-person is compared to remote.
ROBBINS: So that's really interesting and certainly goes against the impression that a lot of people have. But just two things. I'm a stats person. I love stats. It's all the years I worked at the Wall Street Journal, I think. So this 80-90 percent, depending on what the question is, that represents how many teachers and how many districts and are they concentrated in particular places around the country?
WEINGARTEN: They are concentrated in particular places around the country. And, you know, despite how many media appearances I have done on this, I have found that the—and frankly, it's, you know, I saw it in terms of the right-wing pushback because anytime we would say anything about this is how you make it safe, it was interpreted by some as we don't want to be in school, which is just absolutely rubbish. I'm not saying that people aren't scared. We have three thousand locals. We're the second-largest teachers’ union, not the largest, we have about three thousand locals that are probably about twenty-five hundred that are K-12 locals. We have a million of our members of the 1.7 million who are, you know, schoolteachers or, you know, guidance counselors or people who work in pedagogical titles. And we are in some of the toughest places. So if you see a fight in LA, that's us. Chicago, that's us. New York City, that's us. We also represent a whole bunch of school districts in New York state, basically all of them. I served on Cuomo's Open School Commission, and we gave a way of how to reopen schools. Virtually all districts in New York state have been open since, you know, September. Virtually all districts in Illinois opened in September. Virtually all districts in Florida have been open since September. So basically, most of our districts have been open since September and October with different times, particularly November and December, because of the surge where you saw closure. So that's kind of twenty-five hundred districts, a million people, you know, working in schools. 88 percent of those are in-person right now. The people that are not in-person are basically people who are, you know, have pre-existing conditions or whose whole classes are remote.
ROBBINS: So just one final question. I want to go on in this tranche here, but I want to go over to Jacob, which is, I assume, this as all internal polling. Is there anything you're willing to share with the local journalists that they could take away from this because this is really useful? Can you, I mean, share it with us and we'll pass it around afterwards? I mean, this data is really useful.
WEINGARTEN: And frankly, you know, we put this data out. Every time we've gotten one of these polls, we put this data out and we can share it again. But this is also—and I'm so glad to be doing this because my point in making this so plain is that people want to demonize teachers and their unions for the fact of trying to make things safe. Safety to us was always a pathway to reopening schools. It's not an obstacle to stop schools from being open.
ROBBINS: Great, thank you so much on that. So New York has been open for a while working with the teachers' union. Texas is a bit open, Jacob, not working with the teachers’ union in part because they can't unionize. It was done in a very different way in Texas. It's been done the way they do things in Texas in a very Darwinian way, which is, as you wrote me, the Texas Education Agency, which is run by an appointee of the governor. It mandated that schools must offer in-person instruction or they'd lose funding if they don't. So they've been open for the entire academic year under force majeure. How did that turn out? Did kids get sick? Did teachers get sick? Did it work out? And does force majeure work as well?
CARPENTER: Well, I think so much of this and really what's been hard in covering and the framing around this story around school and COVID is there are costs and there are benefits to any sort of approach that is taken. And so, you know, when we don't have an incredibly definitive science around of when do the benefits outweigh the costs, this is how we end up in such a, kind of, political firestorm in some ways, I think, around this issue. So, you know, I think it's a very fair question. So Texas has been open this whole time. Did they do the right thing? It's hard to say yes or no, you know. We see there are thousands and thousands, tens of thousands really, you know, even just here in the Houston area of cases of students and staff reporting that they have tested positive for COVID since schools reopened. What we don't know for sure is how much of that was due to in-person or on-campus transmission or even then going into things like extracurricular activities that wouldn't otherwise be going on if schools weren't open. Generally what we've heard from our local health authorities is that on-campus transmission, when proper protocols are followed around masking and distancing, is low. And so I think that, you know, assuming that, again, we can't definitively say in any way what levels of transmission there have been. But if it is the case that on-campus transmission has been low, and again even then, there becomes a question of how do you define low and is low good enough, you know, there are, I think, a fair number of folks who would say Texas made the right call. But then, you know, we hear from families who, you know, have teachers or in their family or other school staff who say, "I think my loved one got sick on campus." You know, they were in a room that's too small or surrounded by too many people or mask protocols weren't followed closely. So you hate to put it in such a cold calculation, but in some respects a lot of this is looking at how much sickness are we willing to tolerate to see the benefits of in-person classes? Those benefits are numerous, and everybody agrees that there are great benefits to being in-person. So it's a really hard challenge, especially for reporters, I think, when there is so much nuance and, frankly, this debate. Too often we are in some ways, I think, responsible for it. It too often lacks nuance.
ROBBINS: So were schools safer places than the general Texas milieu? Did the Texas Education Agency, in mandating schools stay open, take more precautions inside schools than what [Greg] Abbott said, you know, "No mask mandate. Go and do whatever you want every place else." Were school safer places than shopping malls? Were schools safer places than anyplace else in Texas?
CARPENTER: To be honest, we don't know the answer. The thought seems to be that they were not significant. I think what we can say is that they were not very significantly more dangerous than being in any other place.
ROBBINS: But not dangerous is what you're saying? They didn't take—I mean, did they bend over backwards once they said they had to stay open to make the changes that had to take place to get new ventilation? Was there a statewide requirement given the fact that this was a statewide mandate?
CARPENTER: There were mandates for masks related to staff and students under the age of ten. I think it was ten and under. There were recommendations around distancing, which many, though, I have certainly heard that not all followed. You know, there were some ventilation improvements that were attempted to be made, but I don't think that, you know, certainly every single step was taken that could have been. So, there were absolutely protocols that were put in place, many of which, according to our local health officials and our superintendents, have been followed well and have been implemented well. Very interestingly, we don't have any of our superintendents here, and this may just be political, but none of our local superintendents have really, since October, said, "We got to shut all the schools down." And they have an interesting perspective of having to answer to both their staff and their students and families. But all that being said, you know, we did see, generally, case reports among students and staff pretty closely followed what we saw in the general population. But again, it's awfully hard for us to say that, you know, a school was a safer place than x, y, and z place. Or even a student or family member or staff member being in school was safer than them being at home when they're, you know, maybe in a pod or there may be surrounded by their other family members without masks.
ROBBINS: So I want to go back to Randi and ask her what she takes away from the Texas experience. So before I do that I just have a journalistic question for you, which is, you're an investigative reporter. The Houston Chronicle is a good investigative paper. You guys did that great stuff on the pastor. That was two years ago or something. You've done some really great investigative series. Why haven't you done a forensics series on, you know, how bad it happened in a particular school? It's a great story.
CARPENTER: I don't—
ROBBINS: I'm a masthead editor. I've got asked the question.
CARPENTER: Sure. No, I mean, I think the—
WEINGARTEN: Jacob is frozen.
ROBBINS: While he ponders that because he's frozen. Well, why don't we go to Randi and then we'll have Jacob come back to us. So Randi, while Jacob is frozen and contemplating that, my question is what do you take away from the Texas experience? Do you have particular states that are gold or silver standard right now for how they're managing this versus which states are the warnings of what not to do when you come back?
WEINGARTEN: So, you know, in September, October, and November I would have said New York was a gold standard. I think New Mexico is starting to be a gold standard. Connecticut is starting to be a gold standard. But I want to actually go back to something that gets completely missed. I agree with Jacob. We have several locals in Texas. Texas has been a patchwork where mostly places like Socorro or Houston basically defied the state government and kept the mask mandates—El Paso—you know, particularly in terms of schools. But probably the point, and I don't know if Jacob agrees or disagrees with me on that, but the point that gets missed here is that the bargaining that was done, like in DC, in New York City, like some of it has been yelling and screaming. In the middle of a health crisis, that's not helpful but people are scared. And so you hear that and you hear it exacerbated on social media because people are scared because it's such an asymptomatic disease. But the reason why schools in New York City, in our view, had such a negligible or such a small infection rate is because of the mitigations that were negotiated.
So now you have a CDC that's operational and is telling you what those mitigations are. You know, whether it's the February missive that they put out or the March missive, they will tell you that it's the masks, the physical distancing, the ventilation, cleaning, contact tracing and testing, and then vaccine access. Before they did this, they had it in their work, but the Trump administration kept on politicizing this. So you basically had some state health departments, like New York state, was very, very specific about how schools could open. But most other states were not. So you basically had local unions negotiating with their employers, and those safety measures were what made it clear that schools could be safe. And indeed, that's what you saw in the Wisconsin CDC study and the North Carolina one. So the bottom line is we don't actually know because we haven't had those forensic studies between the deep dives of places that didn't versus places that did. And we had so many places that were on remote where at-risk people basically did stay home and parents who felt like their kids were at risk, basically opted out of in-person. So you're never going to get the research that you're looking for, Carla, about what really happened versus not. But I do think from being very close to New York, in particular, those mitigation strategies, you know, kept transmission really low in schools.
ROBBINS: Thank you. I know, Jacob, you froze on purpose when I asked you that forensic reporting question so I'll let you—I don't want that to happen.
CARPENTER: I apologize for that. I'm here to answer the tough question. You know, I mean, I think the challenge is just that, you know, for, and I guess it comes down to how you define a forensic report, but, you know, a lot of that would mean, you know, gathering, you know, essentially doing contact tracing ourselves a lot, knowing who tested positive. Frankly, maybe it can be done. I haven't seen anybody do it. I think that it's probably outside of, you know, what our capabilities are just because of so many of the—ultimately what you're talking about is we need to know where people got infected. And that would mean ourselves doing contact tracing within a school.
ROBBINS: Assuming, I mean, unless you can find help. Unless, you know, you've got a county or a city that actually is doing contact tracing to work with. I mean, I think that's—
CARPENTER: And that is an interesting question. It has been a real patchwork of some counties have been pretty involved in that. Some school districts have been pretty involved. Generally, to be honest, what I've heard is that, while there certainly is contact tracing that has been done at a school level, it's not nearly as robust as you would need it to be to be confident about the results.
ROBBINS: So you wrote, thank you for that. I mean, you've written about the impact of remote learning on students and some of the work that the state has done looking at it. It's not just anecdotally, but also, you know, what's your big takeaway and how much of it is anecdotal versus how much of it is based on research that you find credible as an education reporter?
CARPENTER: I think it's a hard—I hate to keep saying that so much of this is unknown. But, you know, even—we certainly see that within standardized testing, you know, beginning-of-year testing, things of that sort, we are seeing, however you want to call it, we are seeing students are not where we would have expected them to be academically if this was a normal year. Particularly around math, it sounds like, you know, we have seen the greatest losses. You know, I think, even beyond that, we'll hear a lot of educators talk about just the toll that this has taken on students emotionally, socially, things that are in a lot of ways harder to measure, too. So, you know, we absolutely know and we hear from some educators that there are students who have done better in terms of precise metrics for these types of things. You know, we're going to have much more robust standardized testing here in the spring. What you want to read into that, I think, is going to be a huge subject to debate, especially since, even in states like Texas, students, technically many students, they will not be punished in any way if they do not take the test. And so that is going to skew our data. So the upshot being that we don't have good solid numbers yet, I don't think, to truly comprehensively measure how far behind students are compared to where we'd want to or where we typically see them. But we are seeing losses that are going to take, according to our local educators and state educators, this is a multi-year process of getting them back to where we would expect them to be normally. And even then, normal is a state of great inequity.
ROBBINS: Indeed, that is true. George W. Bush's efforts notwithstanding—Texas and nationally. I think that was faintly sarcastic, but I'm not sure. So Randi, I wanted to ask you a question that was a selfish question. So I teach at a university. And, you know, there's a great deal of enthusiasm now for online learning, either synchronous or asynchronous. A lot of people are saying that we're never going to go back fully to in-classroom learning. And in part, you know, there's a whole economic enthusiasm for this. You know, I've had students last semester when I was teaching, I had students in Indonesia, students in Egypt, you know, we were reaching a lot more people. And at the same time I almost feel as a teacher I've spent more time thinking about teaching and thinking about teaching differently. And I just don't like it. I just don't feel that I'm—you know, for the good students it's fine. And for some of the good students, it's really fine. It's in some ways better just because they can do more. They, you know, seem very engaged the ones who've opted in a really big way. But for the not-so-good students, it's really, I just don't think it's a further reason to check out. What are you hearing from your members about this but on all levels? I mean, how bad has this been? They had to scramble to do it. Have they learned anything that they can take away in the future that could potentially make online learning work better?
WEINGARTEN: So, yes, they have. Lots of people have the experiences that you have had, particularly on the higher-education level. I would say that remote education, you know, is here to stay in one form or fashion. There is, as you know, it is hard to talk about any silver linings anywhere when you have a pandemic that has killed 570,000 people and infected so many. We're not going to know some of the, you know, real effects. I'm always very leery to say this is a silver lining or this is something good, but obviously we've learned a lot. So on K-12, overwhelmingly, again, you know, because we wanted to have some data, not just have anecdotal, that's why we've actually done more polling this year than we've ever done before to try to get that anecdotal. So on the K-12 level, people are very down on remote education. You know, it was the only thing that they could do. A number of people, most people, turned on the dime. They thought that their districts were actually helpful in trying to get them the equipment. You see a lot of intergenerational joy and gratitude of older people like myself. I'm in my 60s, so I didn't grow up with computers. So older teachers actually being very grateful to their younger counterparts for helping them figure out how to do the platforms, you know, how to actually use, not just use Zoom, but how to actually make sure that we got information to students they have there, you know, and things could be done electronically, easily. So there was a lot of that.
There was a lot of work that was done in terms of how do you engage online. What happens when the student turns the video off? What happens when you see things in a household that you should not be seeing? I mean, there were so many questions about teaching, learning, privacy, how do we engage, what happens if you can't find people, how do you do that, teaching online being different than teaching in person, because you really have to do the check-ins very quickly. You cannot, you know, you got to give people time to rest. You can't actually teach on little smartphones. They have to have computers or bigger screens. So all of that stuff that normally nobody would be thinking about got thought about. But on balance, K-12 teachers would tell you that in-person is absolutely essential, pre-K-12 teachers would tell you that. And I would say that higher education is, yes, online is here to stay, but we really need to have people on campus, engaged in community, and have the kind of combination of real in-person learning as well. We haven't done as much polling on that. And I think campus life has been slow to come back, particularly because of, you know, of all of the kind of transmission issues. But we are, you know, we're basically hearing a yearning for the kind of building of community that in-person allows you to do.
ROBBINS: Thank you. I've got many more questions. Irina will tell you I always have many more questions, but I want to turn it over to the group. But before we do that, we're going to do the first round of "Final Jeopardy," which is just for a very quick response to this. Jacob, in your experience in covering this, what's the best source of actual measurable facts for you if you want to figure out what's going on in a school system right now?
CARPENTER: I think a lot of that comes down to what you're trying to measure. You know, unfortunately, you know, we fall back a lot on standardized tests and data that is produced through, you know, examinations for better or worse. You know, at some point you have to go somewhere otherwise it just becomes anecdotes and nothing but. So we struggle with that. I look a lot at enrollment data. I look a lot at discipline data.
ROBBINS: And where do you find that? Do you get there from the school system? Do you get it from the state? If you find a school system that is resistant to giving you information is there a state repository for it? Do you go to, you know, civic groups? I mean, how do you get data that you trust if you're working on a tough story?
CARPENTER: Yes, I mean, we've been fortunate in that our state is pretty good about putting out a lot of data for any reporter. I mean, the state Department of Education, whatever it may be, is definitely a go-to. We do a lot of records requests. Most districts are not very good about publishing their own data. You know, generally, too, if you have something in mind that you want to get, putting in any kind of records requests even if it's sort of vague, it makes them come back to you and say, "Hey, this is sort of vague." Some of them will say, you know, "We have x, y and z. Is this what you wanted?" You know, having good sources within a district. Who are those people that control that and are the ones doing the analysis and the collection so that I can, you know, ask them, "Hey, I'm interested in getting this. What format is it in?" So, you know, and a lot of it is district dependent on, you know, how they operate and what you're trying to find from them.
ROBBINS: So, is there a Texas version of FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]?
CARPENTER: Yes. As far as I'm aware, pretty much every state has some version of that.
ROBBINS: How often do you have to FOIA to get information?
CARPENTER: If I'm not filing a records request at least two, three, four times a week, I'm probably not doing my job the way that I should.
ROBBINS: Very interesting, really interesting. So Randi, in your first of many "Final Jeopardy" questions today, what story do you want, beyond the one that you know convinces everyone that teachers are not angry and scared, you know, what should people be reading about to understand whether or not a school system is getting the help it needs to make this transition back? How do you report something like that? Who should they be talking to, what questions should they be asking?
WEINGARTEN: So number one, there has not been enough stories about the human endeavor and the resiliency and the things that have happened during this period of time that have really helped create joy for kids. I know it doesn't sell newspapers, but I think it's a really important moment about just how essential workers, teachers, through service providers, other central workers, health-care workers, the kind of work they've done to try to ensure that the kids are okay. There's lots of school systems who have tried lots of different things. It's very rarely reported. There was a lot of reporting on this at the beginning of the pandemic kind of lifting up what people were doing. But as things have gone on there hasn't been. Number two, I think that the use of the American Rescue Plan money and making sure that it gets into classrooms and into schools like what's going on in terms of the summer to address joy and enrichment? What are we going to do? What are the plans and what does it look like? And what are the plans for the fall? It was good that Rochester today said we're going full time five days a week in the fall. Every school system should be asked this question right now because there's plenty of time. We know, unless God forbid something happens like it happened in Italy with variants, every school system should be planning for a robust, full opening right now. And if there's parents that still want to do remote, there's a remote option, but they should be planning for this. So instead of constantly having the kind of day to day, you know, what's the union saying about safety, what's the school system saying, let's be planning for what we're doing in fall using the American Rescue Plan money; what does the emotional, social, academic recovery look like; how are we helping parents trust that it's safe; and that we're going to have a robust education program for kids.
ROBBINS: That's a great question. There's a lot of money there. We can come back to the money because that's really important. So Irina, take it away.
FASKIANOS: Yes. Now we're going to go to all of you. There is already a hand raised. So you can either raise your hand and I'll call on you. Please say what your news outlet is. Or you can write a question in the Q&A box. I think somebody from your team, Randi, put a link to your press release on the survey that you did. I haven't clicked into it, but everybody should look there for that. And we will send that out after this. So I'm going to go first to Tod Robberson, who's the editorial page editor at the St. Louis Dispatch. And if you could, please unmute yourself.
Q: I am unmuted. Can you hear me?
Q: Okay. Good deal. Well, let's see. Jacob, I'll start with you, but Randi if you could also answer this. You get the idea from watching television that it's kind of a free for all in Texas. Everybody is so glad to be out from under the thumb of the oppressive government mandates on pandemic restrictions that they just want to rip off their masks and go have fun. I was just in Dallas and Amarillo, and I was, I have to say, a little bit surprised of the level of compliance I saw. Caution on the street and restaurants and whatnot was pretty much what we see here in Missouri. Maybe that's just because Missouri doesn't comply any better than Texas does. I don't know. But I'm just curious, in high schools in particular, but in public schools in general, is there a problem in Texas with students just flat out ignoring the rules and not in compliance, specifically with masks? And, Randi, I'm wondering, nationally, is there a way of measuring compliance versus what the state rules are possibly by teacher complaints and your members saying the rules are this but the compliance is that?
CARPENTER: I think you're spot on with what you saw, or at least what I have seen, you know, admittedly, in a small slice of Texas. I don't travel outside of Houston very much. I honestly can't say that I have seen a significant difference between the removal of the mask mandate and before that. You know, a lot of it comes down to businesses. They still have the opportunity or they can require masks in their facilities. Schools are, unless a school district or school board, I should say, opts out, they are still and they can—a few have—they are still required to wear a mask, every staff and students over the age of ten. And so, you know, in terms of violations, actually, I haven't looked at it in a while, but the Texas AFT created a website where their members could report violations that they saw. I frankly haven't seen how up to date that is, but that is something that was on their website. If you were interested in that, I'd recommend checking that out.
WEINGARTEN: We had about 4,600 reported cases on that. You know, what we started doing at the beginning, I would say, in September and October when we didn't have tracking—I mean, everyone knows the story about Rebekah Jones in Florida—but we just started using whatever tracking systems we could use and put it on a website. So if people wanted to report we would then try to follow up in different places. And that's what happened a lot in Texas. Frankly, that's what happened in Missouri. You know, St. Louis was a little bit better than other places for all the obvious reasons. This is frankly an amazing, wonderful factoid that happened in schools. Younger kids follow up the rules. And you wouldn't, you know, teachers were very concerned last summer. Could we create the routines, particularly given how much was on TV that was so, you know, where there was such confusing messages that the public health people will constantly tell you the most important thing you do in public health is you're transparent, consistent, and honest. We were not getting consistency, honesty, or transparency. Kids really kept their masks on. Kids really kept physically distant. And in a school that I was just at in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and another school I was at in Meriden, Connecticut, the routines are really baked in. Kids want to be, particularly younger kids and middle schoolers, they want to be in school so much that they are actually really being very adept at following the routines. Where we see issues and problems is around sports. What the CDC has said in terms of their data is that sports are where you're seeing, you know, real transmission. And so we have been really religious about three things: layered mitigation; COVID testing in schools, and the big districts are being able to do this and there's now $10 billion out there for CDC to do more and more of this; and the access to vaccines.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We are going to take the next question from Cedar Attanasio.
Q: Hi, Cedar with the Associated Press in New Mexico. Randi, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your visit to New Mexico, particularly around the topic of teacher retention. I know a lot of us were kind of thinking in the fall that there would be a wave of teacher retirements and it did not happen. But now just anecdotally, I see people who maybe would have stuck around for five more years. They're burnt out and they're retiring early. So I wonder if you could talk about New Mexico as the gold standard and then looking forward to the future in terms of teacher retention.
WEINGARTEN: So, you know, if we were talking about Albuquerque, I would say that people in Albuquerque wouldn't think that New Mexico was the gold standard. If you're looking at Rio Rancho and you looked at the schools like Stapleton that I looked at, that's part of the reason why I'm traveling now, and why, you know, Dr. Biden did a school visit with Dr. [Miguel] Cardona, and why Dr. Cardona is traveling. I am, you know, I hate to say this, I am double vaxxed. I'm two by two, double vaxxed two weeks out. I wouldn't be traveling in terms of school visits if that didn't happen. I wouldn't be eating with other people who were not double vaxxed in the same kind of way. But, you know, some of this gets lost, obviously, in translation. So the Rio Rancho school that I saw, they are full time now. This is the first week that they've been full time. They could only do that in a way by doing the three feet in classrooms, which they're doing, but they're being very, very careful about still maintaining six feet in congregate settings. They have really smart ways of doing recess in terms of trying to create pods. It's a really smart way that they've done things. So those are the joy. And teachers are really happy to be back in school. And in that particular school virtually every educator has been vaccinated. New Mexico has done a pretty good job in the last few weeks of making sure that that access is there. Joe Biden did an extraordinary job in terms of doing that.
The flip side is what you just said is that people are completely burnt out. They are really tired. And all of the differences in terms of in, out, remote, hybrid, all of these things have been exhausting. Some have been really unsustainable. Simultaneous instruction where you are trying to instruct kids online and in-person is unsustainable. It is pedagogically terrible, you know, because you're not doing performative art. You're not just doing a live stream lecture. You're actually trying to engage with people, and you cannot engage with people on a screen and engage with kids in classrooms. Much of what you do as a teacher is the kind of oral cues and the body language. You just can't do this and teachers are exhausted. Hybrid, the only reason people did hybrid was because we knew we needed to summon school learning. Hybrid is also pretty awful in terms of teachers. So teachers are completely, not everyone, but the burnout is really terrible. And this sense of telling people, and I'm sorry to be ideological about this, I don't mean to be, but if you have spent ten minutes doing education this year, you know, or watching a teacher educate this year, they've worked twice, triple, quadruple as hard. So when people say they're lazy, they don't want to be out of their homes, they are so angry and disappointed that that is being thrown on them because it's completely untrue. So there's a moral wound, there's a psychic wound, and there's an exhaustion. So I suspect you're going to see a very large level of retirements this year.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go to Wallace Gardener. If you could just ask your question. I know you had raised your hand.
Q: Yes. Can you hear me now?
FASKIANOS: Yes. And if you could identify yourself, that'd be great.
Q: I'm Wallace Gardner. I write the edhead.com blog. I was also a teacher for twenty-eight years at the Los Angeles Unified School District and a member of UTLA [United Teachers Los Angeles]. Randi, here's the point. I've written about this often and have appeared the New York Times often with my letters. I understand the problem with getting anecdotal versus more empirical evidence. But if we have to agree that from the start, private and religious schools have been open from the beginning with very few infections while public schools under your control have been closed. Now, if that's the case, how do you defend your members? And again, I'm a union supporter, retired, how do you defend your position? And if you say, "Well, it's just anecdotal," if the evidence coming up finds out it was not anecdotal, would you admit that you were wrong?
WEINGARTEN: So look, I admit I'm wrong when I'm wrong. I wish more people would do that. I just thought [inaudible] where I was really, you know, I said I was wrong in the language I was using. I think more people should. First off, I wish our union had one one-hundredth of the power you just attributed to it because we're not in control of the school systems. What we have done is we fought for things to be safe. Now, in terms of your basic theory on private versus public, there are a lot of private schools and religious schools that have been open. There are also a lot that have not. The biggest charter system in New York, Success Academy, has stayed closed. I mean, I shouldn't say closed, that's the wrong word, has stayed remote for this entire time. There are many private schools, I just saw some data on this, that are closing and will not reopen because they're going out of business because they've actually lost 15 percent of their kids. I just saw this data a couple of days ago. So, you know, there were many wealthy or private schools that got PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] from one of the first CARES Act. And one of the reasons I'm so bullish on testing is because that is how they kept themselves open. They did the testing that the NFL did. They did the testing that the New York City School System did. And they were very bullish about it. There's also, just FYI, and a lot of my public-school friends were shocked that the AFT supported this, we supported kids who are in private schools who are poor getting funding from the American Rescue Plan Act because this is a pandemic that has hurt everyone. So we're going to learn over the course of the next few weeks, you know, where everyone is. And I think we could learn from everyone here instead of going and saying, "this is right, and this is wrong." The last thing I'll say is our issue and the issue in LA is we've got to convince parents to bring kids back to school. In LA, in New York, in Chicago, the lion's share, the majority of Black and brown parents are very reluctant to send their kids back to in-school learning. And so the real issue we're going to have is how do we convince them that it's safe and that their kids are going to have a safe, welcoming, and affirming experience.
ROBBINS: Irina, can I ask Jacob a question?
FASKIANOS: Absolutely. I'm going to turn it back to you, Carla.
ROBBINS: Thanks. So Jacob, there's going to be a lot of money sloshing around. You know, there's a lot of money in that pandemic relief bill. Some of it, finally, for state and local government, and some of it, finally, for education. How are you preparing to cover how that money is being spent, you know, whether it's being spent effectively and how it's being spent in your school systems?
CARPENTER: Well, I think, you know, the biggest thing that we started out with is understanding who has the control over the money, what the parameters are set at the federal level, and what the discretion is at the state level. And then from the state level, what discretion there will be at the local level. Here in Texas, essentially, all of the first stimulus was what they called supplanted, basically meaning they gave them the money but they took away an equal amount of money to fill some other holes, some of which were education related. But we have $17-18 billion dollars in the pipeline, which we don't know what they're going to do with it yet. And, frankly, it is in the Texas legislature and executive, it is in their hands at the moment. So, you know, I think our biggest responsibility is highlighting that, explaining to people, you know, what the kind of behind-the-scenes machinations of all that are, and illustrating to people what this money—and we've written extensively about this—what this money can be spent on, what the local educators want to spend this money on, and even within that, understanding, you know, what are their needs. And I think that, you know, especially here in Texas, there are real questions around, they don't want to just give school districts the cash and say, "Spend it however you see fit." They want to see specific outcomes. Maybe they don't get that specific, but essentially, you know, they have ideas for how that money should be spent, and they want to have some more control over that. And so explaining to people those power dynamics, I think, is really important and explaining to people how this money could be used and what the different options are available to the people in power making those decisions is really, I think, where we start just sort of at the baseline as we're reporting that.
ROBBINS: I mean, you had infinite stories there. I mean, you have an infinite number of stories to track that money for a really long time. That's—
CARPENTER: Absolutely. And part of it, too, is explaining to people just how massive this amount of money is. I mean, this is equal to one-third of the operating expenditures for the entire state for public schools.
ROBBINS: That's extraordinary. I'm sorry, Irina, back to you.
FASKIANOS: So we have two questions still, hands raised. The first one from Anna Mitchell. And if we have time, I'd love to go back to Cedar as well. But I'm going to go to Anna first since she hasn't had a chance to ask a question.
Q: Fabulous. Thank you. Can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: Yes, please identify yourself and your affiliation?
Q: Yes, no problem. This is Anna Mitchell. I'm an education reporter with the Post and Courier newspaper out of Charleston. But I'm actually in Greenville, which is a pretty big county, and it's the biggest school system in the state here in South Carolina. Speaking of the money, we have in our state constitution a so-called Blaine Amendment provision that blocks public money from going to private schools. And there's a lot of arguments for that saying, you know, public schools have to take every child regardless. But I heard Randi speak in favor of supporting these kids in private schools, who a lot of them are also low income. But it seems like we have a straight-up block in our state constitution from allowing that to happen. And I'm just wondering where do they go from here, and how do you track that money if it does go to private schools?
WEINGARTEN: Well, so the state constitutions—look, I'm a big believer in public money for public schools and in doing that. But this is a pandemic, and kids got hurt all over the place. And so that's why what I was saying to Walt was I think people were surprised because, you know, people put everybody in ideological boxes. But, you know, just like Katrina, just like other times, in that the money from the federal government—what you're talking about is state money and those structures. This was money from the federal government. There should be some accounting for it. It can't go for religious purposes, and it can't go for something somebody wanted to do five years ago that they're going to spend it on. It has to go to help specific kids in remedial work in emotional and social and academic recovery. And I assume that there will be regulations coming out of Department of Education on them soon. I also just wanted to take the opportunity, if I could, Jacob, there's a big issue brewing in Texas about whether they're even going to take the money or not because of the maintenance of effort clauses with this in terms of making sure that there was no supplanting now that they got the federal money, are they going to, you know, decrease taxes in Texas. So are they going to do other kinds of things to supplant the state money? So I was wondering, you know, where you think that's going to land? Is Abbott actually going to take the federal money so that we can use it for kids or not?
CARPENTER: To be honest, I wish that I had a better answer for you at this point. And I hate to pass this off on to—we have folks in Austin who are much more plugged in on this than I am at this point. I think those conversations are still somewhat early. We heard the commissioner the other day raise this, kind of, possibly an issue, but there hasn't been very much specific at this point. I don't feel like personally, but I will again admit that we have some other folks who are much more plugged in on that than I am. I can get back to you if you'd like.
FASKIANOS: So I—go ahead.
CARPENTER: I was just going to say I'd be curious on that South Carolina issue because equitable services are something, and I may be getting that phrase wrong, but there has been federal money that has been going to private schools for decades if I recall correctly. Is it equitable services? Am I getting that name right, Randi?
WEINGARTEN: One is equitable. You know, the first COVID-relief plan talked about it as equitable services. But it is also idea and money, Title I money. There are things that are done for civil rights purposes as long—and then transportation money that's going to private schools for as long as I can remember.
CARPENTER: So I just be curious if schools in South Carolina have followed that for years and years or if this is or if they haven't, but—
FASKIANOS: All right, well, we'll connect you after this call, Jacob, so that you can have an offline conversation. Alas, we are at the end of our time. I unfortunately cannot go back to Cedar. I'm sorry about that. But thank you to Randi Weingarten, Jacob Carpenter, and Carla Anne Robbins for today's really terrific conversation. I encourage you to follow them. You can follow Carla on Twitter at @robbinscarla, Randi at @rweingarten, the American Federation of Teachers website, AFT.org—you can go there for some of the polling that Randi mentioned—and Jacob at @ChronJacob. So please follow them. Thank you for all that you're doing both for standing up for teachers and reporting on these issues. We really appreciate it and, of course, all of you please email us at [email protected] with suggestions for future webinars and any feedback you'd like to give us or resources that we can provide you beyond our website, CFR.org, and ForeignAffairs.com. So thank you all again for this really terrific hour.
ROBBINS: And send us your stories that you write. We want to read them.
WEINGARTEN: Thank you.