The president of the most powerful US teachers’ union on Thursday signaled a growing openness to coronavirus vaccine mandates for teachers as the highly contagious Delta strain sweeps across the country and millions of unvaccinated children are about to return to the classroom.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members nationwide, said she had not ruled out support for a vaccine mandate.
“Things have changed with Delta’s anger and the proximity of full vaccine approval,” she told NewsMadura on Thursday. “Because of those two facts, we are considering all alternatives, including looking at vaccine mandates.”
“It’s all about the essence of the North Star. How do we ensure that we keep our communities, ourselves, our families and our students safe?” she said.
The three vaccines are being administered with emergency use approval, but the Food and Drug Administration plans to fully approve one of the vaccines — by Pfizer-BioNTech — early next month. Fully vaccinated people are protected from the worst effects of Covid-19, including those caused by the Delta variant. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Nearly 90 percent of teachers and school staff across the country have already been vaccinated, and Ms Weingarten said she’d focused on convincing those left behind amid an effort to get kids back into the classroom.
“Until the last few weeks, we thought the way to do it is through persuasion,” Ms. Weingarten said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier Thursday. But she said she was now considering “all options.”
Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has also expressed a commitment to return to personal instruction, and has said any vaccine mandates should be negotiated at the local level.
“Anyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated and if they can’t, they should be tested regularly,” she said in a statement on Thursday.
Employers generally have the right to demand vaccination, and a growing number — from Walmart to the federal government — have started asking at least some employees to be vaccinated.
Teacher unions have been seen as a potential complicating factor for mandating vaccinations in schools, in part because some local contracts require such a mandate to be negotiated.
But the Delta variant creates more and more new urgency around the problem.
This week, the city of Denver issued a vaccine mandate to many employees, including school personnel.
In New York, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said the state is considering mandating vaccines for teachers if virus numbers continue to worsen. The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s powerful union, has instructed its members to prepare for the possibility of mandates even before the vaccine is fully approved by the FDA.
Mandates for teachers do not necessarily apply to students. While schools have long required children to be vaccinated against certain diseases, the youngest children are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine and for now, talks have focused on whether or not students should wear masks.
Eliza Shapiro contributed reporting