U.S. teachers’ union shifts stance to back vaccine mandate as COVID surges

A bus drops students off in Dayton, Ohio, as classes resumed in March after teachers received the coronavirus vaccination.
Reuters file

By Susan Heavey

COVID-19 vaccinations should be required for U.S. teachers to protect students who are too young to be inoculated, the head of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union said on Sunday, shifting course to back mandated shots as more children fall ill.

“The circumstances have changed,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” program. “It weighs really heavily on me that kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated.”

“I felt the need … to stand up and say this as a matter of personal conscience,” she said.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID is rising across the country, a trend health experts attribute to the Delta variant being more likely to infect children than the original Alpha strain.

Almost 90% of educators and school staff are vaccinated, according to a White House statement echoed by Weingarten in other television interviews last week.

A growing number of companies and state governments are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations. United Airlines, meatpacker Tyson Foods Inc and Microsoft are requiring employees get vaccinated, moves that experts said were legal but could raise labor tensions in unionized workplaces.

California, New York and Virginia are also requiring all state employees to get inoculated, and New Jersey is requiring some workers in health care to take the vaccine.

Becky Pringle, president of the largest U.S. teachers’ union, the National Education Association, told the New York Times last week that any vaccine mandate should be negotiated at the local level.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, said it was critical to surround children with vaccinated and masked people in schools and elsewhere until shots are approved for them.

“You surround them with those who can be vaccinated, whoever they are — teachers, personnel in the schools, anyone – get them vaccinated. Protect the kids with a shield of vaccinated people,” he said in a separate interview on NBC, noting that pediatric hospitals are filling up with COVID cases.

The United States has reported more than 100,000 new cases a day on average for the past two days, a six-month high, according to a Reuters tally. About 400 people a day on average are dying. Hospitalizations are the highest since last February.

The U.S. South remains the epicenter of the latest outbreak, with Florida reporting a record of nearly 24,000 new cases on Saturday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

The number of COVID patients filling the state’s hospitals has set records nearly every day for the past week.

“Things in Florida aren’t just bad — they’re epically bad,” cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a George Washington University professor, told CNN on Sunday, noting its case rate was behind only Louisiana and Botswana. “If Florida was another country, the United States would consider banning travel from Florida… It’s going to get much worse there.”

Despite the surge, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has refused to mandate masks and has blocked school districts from requiring them, despite the state leading the nation in pediatric hospitalizations based on its population.

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said not requiring masks for students as they return to full-day, in-person learning was reckless, telling CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program: “No business would do that responsibly and yet that’s what we’re going to be doing in some schools.”

He also urged schools and families to utilize higher-quality masks such as N95s to protect against the more contagious Delta variant, noting that Utah was providing KN95 masks for every student.

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