Editor’s note: a previous version of this story conflated the number of children hospitalized with COVID in the past year with the current hospitalized tally as of this past week. We regret the error.
Across the country, teachers who haven’t yet returned to work are bracing for the inevitable clusterfuck of classrooms full of young children who may not yet be eligible for one of the three COVID-19 vaccines as the Delta variant kills and hospitalizes in record numbers.
But the kids, especially those in areas where mask mandates have been banned by far-right Republicans, aren’t the only ones at risk—nor are they alone in potentially endangering others. After all, teachers themselves are not uniformly vaccinated and, in addition to facing their own exposure, could infect students.
Now, after noteworthy skepticism in some corners, the largest teachers’ union in the country is backing a mandate on their own to change the game before it’s too late.
The National Education Association (NEA), with millions of members nationwide, announced they back a mandate for shots or else that members get tested regularly. The change in posture comes as an ever-larger number of local and state governments and businesses impose similar get-the-shot-or-get-tested-regularly policies.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) also formalized new—more nuanced—support for vaccine mandates on Thursday, indicating the union encourages locals to bargain for mandates with their employers.
The stakes could not be clearer.
Several states—including those where unions often lack clout—are already facing the brunt of returning to school in the middle of the latest COVID-19 wave. In Mississippi, more than 4,000 K-12 students and staff were forced to quarantine last week after hundreds of children tested positive. In Arkansas, the only children’s hospital has just two ICU beds available. Tennessee’s health department said this week that their own state’s children’s hospitals might meet capacity levels by the end of the week.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 45,000 children under the age of 17 had been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last year.
“As we enter a new school year amidst a rapidly spreading Delta variant and lagging public vaccination rates, it is clear that the vaccination of those eligible is one of the most effective ways to keep schools safe, and they must be coupled with other proven mitigation strategies” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a Thursday statement. “We believe that such vaccine requirements and accommodations are an appropriate, responsible, and necessary step to ensure the safety of our school communities and to protect our students.”
The nation’s largest professional employee organization that represents more than 3 million teachers, administrators, and retirees, also noted that they support regular COVID-19 testing if “vaccination is not medically appropriate or effective” for some members.
The American Federation of Teachers, which boasts over a million members, also moved, albeit more cautiously, toward backing a mandate.
AFT President Randi Weingarten signaled the shift on Sunday, saying in an interview on NBC’s Meet The Press that she personally backed mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for all teachers.
After a unanimous vote on Wednesday night, the union released a resolution stating they support and encourage their members to negotiate potential mandates with local governments and school districts—and highlighted the importance of vaccinations as cases surge in every state in the country.
“While we still believe the best way to increase vaccinations is through education and voluntary adoption, we want to be in a position to work with our employers on workplace vaccination policies, including how they’re implemented—so people who need it can get accommodations, so everyone has access to vaccines and time to get them, and so no one is penalized for medical or religious reasons,” Weingarten said in a Thursday statement, which noted the union’s stand that masks and testing are vital to curb the deadly virus. “Moving forward, we will be bargaining the impact of these vaccination policies.”
The new stance was not as fulsome an embrace of mandates as critics have demanded. But the shift from both of these union giants comes after state officials push for mandates to ensure children return to school safely this year after several rocky attempts.
On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom was the first to pull the trigger—announcing a mandate for all teachers to get tested, or be forced to take weekly tests to combat any COVID outbreaks.
“To give parents confidence that their children are safe as schools return to full, in-person learning, we are urging all school staff to get vaccinated. Vaccinations are how we will end this pandemic,” Newsom said on Wednesday. “As a father, I look forward to the start of the school year and seeing all California kids back in the classroom.”
The mandate is the latest attempt to curtail the tsunami of cases in the Golden State, where officials are battling an almost 23 percent positive rate. According to the California Department of Health, only about 40 percent of the state’s seventh-to 12th-grade students will be fully vaccinated by the school year.
For one Miami-Dade teacher in the worse-than-ever hotspot of Florida, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution, the support of these influential unions offers “small hope that guidelines will be put in place to protect us.”
“In Florida, cases are off the charts—and parents and officials don’t seem to want to take it seriously,” the middle school teacher said. “Knowing that these unions believe a mandate is the least we can do to protect ourselves, and our students, is helpful for sure.”
Just two days into school, in nearby Palm Beach County, over 400 students have been forced to quarantine after more than 50 people tested positive for COVID. Superintendent Michael Burke told MSNBC that 5,700 students in the county had opted out of wearing face masks.
As previously reported by The Daily Beast, officials in Miami-Dade are currently reevaluating its mask-optional policy—Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned mandates—and have not yet spoken out definitively on any vaccine mandate. The state is currently battling its own COVID-19 disaster as it once again has emerged as a pandemic epicenter. In the last month, according to CNN, the number of pediatric hospitalizations in Florida has increased by 137 percent.
Whether politicians in right-to-work states already facing outbreaks will hear these calls for new vaccine rules is far from clear. But for Genevieve Kanter, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who studies disparities in health care, the need for robust guidelines to protect teachers and students is critical.
The two unions’ support for vaccination mandates, Kanter told The Daily Beast, “represents progress, because some schoolchildren are not eligible to be vaccinated and remain at risk, especially with the Delta variant, and because containment efforts will be more effective with uniformity for teachers, classrooms, and schools.”