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Amid Delta Variant, School Districts Are Divided Over Mask And Vaccine Mandates

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

It's back-to-school season, with kids now back in the classroom in some parts of the country. The return of in-person learning comes amid a new surge in COVID cases driven by the supercontagious delta variant and areas with low vaccination rates. Children under 12, who are ineligible to get the shot, are among the unvaccinated, yet many states and school districts remain divided over mandating vaccines and face coverings. So how can educators keep schools open and students safe?

Kim Anderson is the executive director of the National Education Association, the nation's largest labor union, and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

KIM ANDERSON: Thank you very much, Debbie. It's nice to be with you.

ELLIOTT: So will the NEA be supporting a mandate that teachers get the COVID vaccine?

ANDERSON: Well, first, let me say, the most important thing about this is that nobody wants to be back in the classroom more than educators for full-time in-person learning. I am watching my Facebook posts of educators I know across the country - and posting their first day of school pictures. And they just - they cannot wait. And we are seeing their enthusiasm by the fact that nearly 90% of our members have already been fully vaccinated. So they're doing their part.

And we are trying to do our part by spreading the word about how important it is that everyone who can get vaccinated must get vaccinated. And if you can't get vaccinated for some medical reason, you need to regularly test. And so we're running an informational campaign not only to our members but to parents as well at nea.org/vaxtoschool so that folks can go out and buy their school supplies and buy their school clothes and get their shot because it's part of a really successful back-to-school plan.

ELLIOTT: So is that a no, you don't support a vaccine mandate?

ANDERSON: Well, we're looking at that question right now with our leaders. We're talking with members across the country. But the most important thing is that every local school district should be collaborating with educators and parents and community members to discuss their safety plans about how to keep everyone safe. And part of that certainly is vaccines. But it is also following the CDC guidelines, following all of the strategies to keep everyone safe.

You know, I'm a mom. I want my kids to be safe, too. And I know that people are anxious out there. I know that there is worry. But one of the things that we have found is that the most successful schools, the schools that stayed for in-person learning the longest so far throughout this pandemic are the ones that have had really collaborative, highly communicative relationships with their local educators and their unions, parents and community members. We know we can do this. We just have to communicate 24/7/365 to get this done and follow the CDC guidelines.

ELLIOTT: You know, Randi Weingarten, who's president of the American Federation of Teachers, says that that union is now supporting vaccine mandates. Here's what she told NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I do think that the circumstances have changed and that vaccination is a community responsibility. And it weighs really heavily on me that kids under...

CHUCK TODD: Yeah.

WEINGARTEN: ...12 can't get vaccinated.

ELLIOTT: So what would it take for your members to support vaccine mandates? And I also have a question about, you know, should an unvaccinated teacher even be in the classroom?

ANDERSON: Yeah. One of the things I wanted to express is - and obviously President Weingarten expressed a personal view there. And she plans to bring the very same question that you're asking me to her union's leadership this week. That's the exact same process that we are running here at NEA, is that...

ELLIOTT: OK.

ANDERSON: ...We're going to talk about this with our leaders. But the most important thing right now to know is that the percentage of educators out there who are fully vaccinated - it is already up at 90%. And it continues to go up. However, the percentage that really bothers us and worries us are the percentage of kids 12 and up who are not yet vaccinated. And as you said, Debbie, the kids under 12 don't have access to the vaccine. So that's what makes all of the other mitigation strategies that the CDC has recommended so important.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about that. Like, what is it going to look like in a classroom this year? Sort of describe for me what you see.

ANDERSON: Sure. Sure. We hope to see everybody following the CDC guidelines, which is a layering approach of protection. You know, again, I'm a mom. I want to - I want my kids to be as safe as possible. And that means masking up. That means we still have to distance. It means still a very strong commitment to handwashing and sanitizing all the surfaces and really good ventilation.

So there isn't one cure-all here. All of these strategies, including vaccinations, are really, really critical to making sure that we can keep everyone safe.

ELLIOTT: Briefly - we're almost out of time here - let's talk a little bit about the face mask because that has become such a contentious issue. You even have some states - Arkansas, Florida and Texas among them - banning face mask requirements in public schools. What are teachers going to do about this?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, we think that politicians that are playing politics with people's health are wrong. They're not following the medical guidance. And why would a politician take a tool or a strategy away from an educator or a school board or a principal to keep a child safe? We don't understand that. We don't understand that at all. Masking is really important.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you for being with us this morning.

ANDERSON: Thank you so much.

ELLIOTT: Kim Anderson is executive director of the National Education Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.