August 15, 2021

AFT President Randi Weingarten To Indiana: Mask Up To Keep Kids In School

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stands with Anderson Community Schools teachers outside the district high school on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 in Anderson. - Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stands with Anderson Community Schools teachers outside the district high school on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 in Anderson.

Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI

The leader of America’s second largest teacher's labor union visited Indiana Friday as COVID-19 cases surge and school districts across the state reevaluate their face mask policy.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, visited Anderson Community Schools where she urgued the use of masks inside schools and for school districts to implement vaccination mandates for educators. The district has quarantined hundreds of students since starting the new academic year about two weeks ago.

Weingarten said the debate around masks could have been different if more people were vaccinated and communities were able to reach herd immunity. But since the delta variant is more transmissive, Weingarten believes universal masking is the best way to protect everyone.

“No one wants to wear a mask,” Weingarten said at Anderson High School. “I'm an asthmatic. Every time I wear a mask inside or outside I have labored breathing. I completely understand parents who are saying you can't see kids [facial] queues. But what's the biggest, the greatest need right now? That is to get schools open, to keep schools open and to make sure we keep everybody safe.”

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and state health officials have said they will not mandate masks this year. It’s up to local health departments and elected school boards whether to mandate masks.

Anderson School District Mask Policy

Anderson High School art teacher Stacia Partezana, who has been an educator for 17 years, said the new school year has been pretty hectic.

“I think mainly because we have a lot of kids that came back,” Partezana said. “So we weren't able to social distance. And so the crowding is kind of causing a lot of kids to be out quarantined.”

According to the district’s COVID-19 tracker, 332 students were quarantined on Aug. 6 due to contact tracing. As of Aug. 13, the number jumped to 908 students.

The school board has since mandated all staff and students to wear masks, which began Aug. 9. The decision will be reevaluated every two weeks. Students are allowed to take their masks off when eating or drinking, but it’s up to individual teachers to determine if students can take indoor mask breaks.

Anderson Superintendent Joseph Cronk said he expects the mask mandate to continue since cases keep rising,

“What we don't want to do is if we do start to see a little bit of an improvement, we don't want to drop masks and maybe cause our cases to go back up,” Cronk said.

So far, Cronk said the district has had good student and parent compliance. Students who choose not to wear a mask are not allowed in their school, and would be counted as absent. If this leads to chronic absences, Cronk said students will be invited to enroll in their virtual learning program.

National Teacher Vaccination Mandates

As COVID-19 cases surge across the country due to the delta variant, state officials and school districts are implementing other policies to reduce the spread.

Nationally, the state of California, Chicago Public Schools and D.C. Public Schools have become the first to require all school staff to be vaccinated, unless there is a medical or religious exemption. Those who decline to be vaccinated will undergo regular COVID-19 tests.

Ninety percent of AFT members nationwide are vaccinated. But Weingarten supports school districts implementing vaccination mandates, and said the union will work with school districts that are trying to implement them.

Combating Disinformation

This comes as misinformation continues to spread across the state and the country. A viral video has been circulating after an Indiana doctor provided incorrect information about mask policies while speaking out against COVID-19 precautions at a local school board meeting.

Weingarten said the disinformation that has been spreading is making it harder for school districts to reopen schools with “a sense of normalcy.”

She believes everyone should be working together within their communities to respond to the pandemic, and hopes the disinformation circulating will provide a teachable moment for students.

“We should not be ideological in our teaching,” Weingarten said. “But we need to be able to be accurate about our values and be accurate about what's happening, and let kids actually think about things in a way that they also respect each and everyone's lived experience. Kids have to be able to distinguish between truth and propaganda, between what are really the facts on the ground, versus what is disinformation.”

In order to encourage his students to wear masks and keep COVID-19 cases down, Anderson High School English teacher Paul Partezana tells them a story about him playing basketball when he was in high school.

“We were ahead 13 points with two minutes to go one time, and the other team came back and beat us,” Partezana said. “And my coach was incredibly angry. Not because we lost, but because we let the other team back in the game. And I tell the kids, ‘Okay, we got to mask up because we don't want to let COVID back in the game.’”

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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