Nearly 90 percent of members of the National Education Association, America’s largest teachers’ union, self-reported in a recent survey that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. But that still leaves a lot of unvaccinated teachers and school support staff; the union has roughly 3 million members. Becky Pringle, the NEA’s president, has strongly encouraged vaccination, but she told me that regular testing should be available as an alternative to legal mandates: “We have to make sure that school districts work with educators to address accommodations that need to be made.”
Right as the school year gets under way, the Delta variant is putting kids at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than at any previous point in the pandemic, although they are still at significantly lower risk of serious disease than unvaccinated adults. Yet hundreds of parents showed up to a school-board meeting in Tennessee’s Williamson County to debate a mask mandate for elementary-school students. And many students will never show up for school at all: Rates of homeschooling are on the rise, and kindergarten enrollment rates plummeted last year.
Pringle took the helm at the NEA last September, when many teachers weren’t sure whether they would physically return to their classrooms at all. Right now, the union is advocating students’ return to classrooms for full-time, in-person instruction this fall, but Pringle refused to rule out calling for hybrid or remote learning if coronavirus cases continue to rise. Even with all the uncertainty ahead, Pringle is committed to her belief that America’s public-education system requires radical transformation to become more racially and socially equitable. That mission seemed lofty when she started a year ago. But after 18 months of the pandemic, the goal of creating decent, safe schools for all kids in America seems even more out of reach.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: Do you believe that every school in the United States should be open for full-time, in-person instruction in the fall of 2021?
Becky Pringle: We have been working the whole year to try to ensure that every single school has the big R: resources. That means the money, the people, and the time to be sure that schools are the safest place in any community. For that to be true, the community has to work with schools to ensure that they follow the science, listen to the infectious-disease experts, and then make decisions that will keep their students safe. We have partnered with the White House and the Department of Education to ensure that every school has those big-R resources. We have worked all throughout the summer to get those resources in place so that HVAC systems, cleaning supplies, and additional educators, counselors, nurses, and custodians are available—not only to reopen our school buildings safely, but to keep them open.
Green: Is there a scenario, with the rising cases caused by the Delta variant, where you would call for a return to hybrid or remote schooling this fall?
Pringle: The No. 1 thing is to keep our students safe. To do that, we have to follow the science. Every 24 hours we’re learning something new. The CDC is continuing to do research and trying to understand this Delta variant. We know already that it’s more virulent. We know already that there are more cases of infection, and that those infections are leading to more severe illness. [Editor’s note: The CDC has found that Delta is more transmissible than other dominant variants, leading to quickly rising case rates. Research on whether it leads to more severe disease is still not definitive.] We are seeing our hospitals overrun again. What’s new is that now we’re seeing some of our children’s hospitals overrun because this variant is impacting our students to a greater degree. They are getting COVID, and they are getting sick from COVID. They are being hospitalized.
One of the things we know about this virus is we don’t know everything. We have to have every strategy available to us—every single one—to keep our students safe. As we learn more, we need to come back together as a community and say, “Okay, the infection rates here are really high. We don’t know that we can keep our students safe. What decision are we going to make?”
Green: It sounds like you’re saying that you think hybrid or remote schooling should be on the table, given the uncertainties. My question is, do you think remote schooling is actually effective for educating kids?
Pringle: When we shut down on a dime in the spring of 2020, no one wanted to be back to in-person learning more than educators. It’s why we worked so hard for schools to reopen. But we also worked really hard to ensure that virtual learning continued to improve. We, as educators, took additional classes. We’ve learned a lot of things. In fact, when I visited schools recently in Baltimore, the educators shared that they had learned so much about the opportunities in virtual learning that they’re bringing those into in-person learning for the fall. We know that the best place for students—and educators—to be is in person with one another. We’re going to continue to try to ensure that is available for all of our students throughout the country. But we also know that we have to keep our kids safe.
Green: In order to make students safer, do you believe that every teacher in the United States should be required to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom?
Pringle: We have from the very beginning called for the vaccination of everyone. Everyone who can be vaccinated needs to be vaccinated. In the early spring, we fought to get educators prioritized, but we didn't just stop there. Right now, we’re partnering with the Department of Education to raise vaccination rates among our students who are 12 and up. Ninety percent of our educators are vaccinated. We believe that anyone who is working with kids should be vaccinated. That’s why we called for the vaccination of all adults who work with students, or to submit to regular testing.
Green: We know that regular testing, while important, isn’t effective as a replacement for vaccination. Do you support local districts and governments mandating vaccination for teachers before they return to classrooms?
Pringle: Well, what we have said is that we support requiring vaccinations for all people who work with our students or submitting to regular testing. That’s our position.
Green: So it sounds like you don’t support vaccine mandates?
Pringle: We are calling for districts and employers to work directly with educators and their unions to address the complexities of vaccinations and accommodations that will need to be made for educators.
Green: The reason I’m pressing you on this is that we know that vaccines are the No. 1 way to stop the spread of COVID-19—to make it less deadly for people who get the virus, and to make it less likely that those people will spread the disease to others. Knowing that, why would the NEA not be in support of a mandate for teachers to get vaccinated and make their classrooms safer for themselves and for their students?
Pringle: It goes back to what I said earlier. We know the complexities of vaccinations. We have to make sure that school districts work with educators to address accommodations that need to be made, whether it is [reaching] those who have not yet been vaccinated or ensuring that any adults who are with students are being tested.
Green: I recently had a conversation with a local union leader, and we were talking about vaccine mandates. The way he framed it to me was that even though he believes that everyone who’s eligible should be vaccinated, he still has an obligation to represent members who may not want to be vaccinated. Is that the reason that the NEA is not coming out in support of a full vaccine mandate—you have members who are unwilling to get vaccinated?
Pringle: We believe that all educators have the right to have a union that works with them and the district to keep our students and educators safe. Some employees will have to have accommodations. We know that is a reality. And so it is absolutely essential that educators and their representatives have the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations. The schools that stayed open were school districts that worked directly with educators and with their unions to make decisions that were best in terms of keeping students and all of the people in that population healthy. And that’s what we believe will work this year as well. [Editor’s note: Although some districts saw cooperation between administrators and unions, leading to successful and sustained school reopenings in the fall of 2020, research suggests that school districts in conservative areas, where unions tend to be weaker, may have been more likely to open for in-person instruction in the 2020–21 school year than schools in other areas.]
Green: There’s been quite a bit of debate over mask mandates in public schools. I’m wondering whether any of your educators have experienced major pushback from parents on mask mandates and how that has posed challenges for going back into classrooms.
Pringle: The pushback on masks has posed challenges in some areas. I will say, the NEA has tried to get a deeper understanding of what’s actually happening versus what’s being reported. When some parents demand that their students have the right to not wear a mask, it gets a lot of attention and media coverage. In most cases, parents want their students to go back to school wearing masks. That loud minority is there, and it does concern our educators. But it doesn't necessarily reflect the majority opinion, even in rural or conservative areas. Educators all over the country are speaking up. Parents are speaking up, too. They understand that it can’t be this vocal minority who seem to be winning the day when that is not the case. It’s not. Most parents want everything done to keep their kids safe. Most parents want their students to be back to in-person learning, and they know that for that to happen, every mitigation strategy has to be put in place: vaccinations, masks, cleaning, ventilation, distancing.
Green: It sounds like you think the media have paid outsize attention to those who are protesting masks in schools relative to those who support masks in schools. Do you think the media have made it harder for schools to come to agreements about how they’re going to proceed with reopening, or have misrepresented the amount of tension over school reopening?
Pringle: I do believe that. And it’s unfortunate. Anything that further politicizes [reopening] is not helping our kids. Where was that story about everyone coming together, where kids were able to stay in person all year long? Nobody’s telling those stories. People need to learn, Oh, wait a minute. This is how we can do it. We have to know: These are the ways that we can be in person for learning. These are the ways that we can keep students safe. That’s the kind of story that doesn’t get told, because it’s not controversial. Politicians are going to feed and fuel that to advance their own political futures. It’s irresponsible.
Green: Just to push back for a minute, we have data that suggest that the tension over schooling is not just manufactured by politicians and the media. Trust in public schools has really plummeted over the pandemic. Homeschooling rates in the United States spiked significantly over the past year. Some areas of the country are seeing major attrition from public schools to private schools because parents don’t believe they can rely on public schools to stay open for in-person learning. Are you worried that the long-term effect of keeping schools closed last year will diminish public trust in public schooling, and that fewer parents will want their kids in public school?
Pringle: My No. 1 concern is for our students and educators. We know that in-person learning is best for our students. It is the best way for educators to nurture and educate them. We know that over the pandemic, parents had to make very hard decisions about what to do to keep their students safe and ensure they continued to learn. But we know that public trust in public education as the foundation of our democracy remains. We know that access to universal, high-quality education for every single student is absolutely essential to this democracy. And we believe that as we do ultimately transition out of this pandemic, we have the opportunity to demonstrate that we have used this moment.
Green: There’s a public perception—and I’m sure you’re aware of this—that teachers’ unions have stood in the way of school reopening during the pandemic, pursuing protracted contract negotiations that were more focused on adults than on the needs of kids. And that’s why many public schools stayed remote or hybrid for most of the year, even when most private schools in the U.S. were open in person all year last year. How do you respond to this perception that teachers’ unions don’t actually want schools open and don’t actually advocate for what’s best for kids?
Pringle: It is a perception. It is not a reality. And though many of those protracted conversations that you’ve referenced made the news, the majority of our conversations—whether they were collective bargaining or memorandums of understanding or just collaboration between educators and school districts—came to a mutual agreement about what was best for students and educators and schools.
When I took office a year ago, I said that we would unite not only our members but the entire nation to reclaim public education as a common good and to transform it into a racially and socially equitable system that prepares every student to succeed in a diverse world. That has been my North Star since I took office. We’re going to transform our profession, and ultimately this country.
Green: The tragedy is, that vision has gotten far harder to imagine over the past 18 months. I’m sure you’ve seen the surveys showing that Black parents of K–12 students are significantly more likely than other parents to say they want to keep their kids remote, largely because they believe their kids won’t be safe in person and they don’t trust their schools to put mitigations in place. In your hometown, Philadelphia, there was a 28 percent drop in kindergarten enrollment in 2020, which is just stunning. The past 18 months have been hardest on the kids who are worst off. It’s been hardest on kids of color and on Black families. Where does that leave you moving forward?
Pringle: I was born and raised in Philly and started teaching there. I know the systemic racism that exists in this country and how it finds its way into our schools. I lived it as a child and as an educator. When you talk to me about surveys where our Black and brown and Indigenous parents are more fearful of their students going into schools, that is based on their lived experiences. This society has allowed their students to go into unhealthy buildings for decades. This is not new. We have yet as a society to invest in ways to actually change that. Our students know that. Our communities know that.
We have to do more to demonstrate to those parents that we have invested in their schools in ways that will make their students’ school safe beyond the pandemic. The battle is not over yet. We have a lot of work yet to do.