Randi Weingarten, head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, spoke to “Meet the Press’” Chuck Todd last week about getting teachers back in the classroom for in-person learning.
When asked for models for safe return to work, she cited the National Football League, which played an entire season of full-contact football starting in September of 2020.
“If the NFL could figure out how to do this in terms of testing and the protocols, if schools are that important, let’s do it,” Weingarten said. “My members want it. They just want to be safe.”
Right now, roughly one third of American public school students are coming up on a year of no in-person instruction, according to website Burbio, which has been tracking school reopenings across the country. Another quarter are offered hybrid learning, in person for part of the week. Evidence has been mounting since the summer that children, especially elementary-school age, are not frequent COVID spreaders. Throughout the school year, private schools and open public schools across the country (and abroad) have shown they are not hotbeds of COVID transmission.
Complications behind opening schools
In places with no in-person options — let’s call them “no-school districts” — parents are mounting their own push to get their kids back in classrooms as local and federal authorities alike claim to have the same goal. But Fairfax County in Northern Virginia learned the hard way that the rhetoric of teachers’ associations doesn’t always match their actions. Teachers were prioritized for the vaccine in this affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. only for the association to announce they didn’t want members returning to school until other demands were met, such as vaccinating school children. COVID vaccines are not approved for children under 16.
Frustrated parents in these districts see a pattern. Local teachers’ unions say they want to return to school as much as parents do, but they simply want to be safe while doing so. Parents nod in agreement until they realize the definition of “open” is something very short of a normal school week, and the definition of “safe” is unattainable.
The Biden administration has followed a similar pattern, repeatedly claiming it intends to get kids back in school, then announcing CDC guidance written in concert with teachers’ unions leaders that would make opening functionally impossible for most American schools, even the ones that have been successfully operating since fall.
Since Weingarten brought it up, it’s worth examining what it would look like to hold public schools to the same testing and protocols standards as the NFL.
First, districts without school are a year behind the NFL, which started planning for a return to football as soon as the pandemic hit, working with the players’ union to cut back on offseason and preseason play, ramp up testing, and get back on the field. Players and management worked aggressively during their offseason to agree on the definitions of “open” and “safe,” and Tom Brady has won yet another Super Bowl while Weingarten is still talking about a “roadmap” to return.
Parents in places like Virginia and Maryland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland have been staring at roadmaps for a year wondering when exactly the ignition starts.
This is what the NFL did to bring football back.
They tested every single player and most staff members every day. That amounted to about 6,000 tests per day and 45,000 tests per week. The rough cost for that testing regimen was $75 million, according to The Sporting News.
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The league employs about 6,200 staff and players in need of testing, according to the NFL. There are roughly 50 million studentsand some 3 million teachers in American public schools, according to EdWeek. Even if one only addresses the one-third of school districts that are currently closed, that’s about 18 million people.
Bringing football back was complicated and expensive
Unlike the NFL, most of the people who would need to be tested regularly are not employees. They are students. An NFL-style plan would not only put school system staff in the unenviable position of being tested daily, but of enforcing the same for millions of minors whose parents would understandably have objections to daily compulsory nasal swabs for their second-graders.
NFL players and staff wore physical distance trackers at work at all times, in the form of the wristwatch-like Kinexon. The devices blink red or alarm when wearers are within 6 feet of each other. All data were saved and reviewed by team personnel in the event of an infection, so that contact tracing could be done quickly and accurately if any player or staff member tested positive.
NFL employees submitted to this as part of an employment contract in order to make a full-contact sport work during a pandemic. But such devices would cause obvious privacy and mission-creep concerns for teachers and students whose data would go to local government officials and work superiors.
The NFL used facial recognition technology to create touchless, secure entry to facilities and robots to sanitize rooms.
The NFL also implemented stiff penalties for mask violations and social behavior that violated its rules.It is safe to say school districts won’t and should not fine teachers and students thousands of dollars for going to a party or an indoor playdate.
Do I think Weingarten literally wants to reopen closed schools using NFL rules? No. She knows full well districts wouldn’t implement these rules and teachers and students wouldn’t submit to them. Nor do they need to! Adults playing full-contact football with other adults are engaging in far more risky behavior than teachers teaching and students learning.
The truth is the NFL plan was innovative and effective in getting a pro-sports league back in business, but is impractical and impossible for public schools. Closed schools will not open if the NFL is the model. And that’s by design.
The better model for Weingarten’s membership is not an NFL franchise, but the private school down the street. Private schools have been operating in good faith with good results sometimes blocks from shuttered public schools since near the start of the school year.
Weingarten could also reference the 37% of public school districts that opened in fall of 2020. Like the NFL, they worked hard during their off-seasons to problem-solve, research the science, and resume their jobs. They deserve tons of credit and thanks for making it happen.
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Parents fighting to get their kids back in school have been surprised by what they’re up against. In the Bay Area, an entire school board resigned after they accidentally broadcast themselves bashing parents for wanting schools as babysitters while they did drugs at home. In districts all over the country, parent comments on school Facebook pages are regularly swamped with negative comments from employees while parents line up by the hundreds to speak to school board members they suspect aren’t listening to them or the science.
In a January focus group of suburban Virginia parents run by N2 America, a research firm focused on suburban voters, one Fairfax mom said of unions, “they are a complete obstacle…No preventative measure will be good enough for the unions.”
The response from leaders like Weingarten? “Welcome to the NFL.”
Mary Katharine Ham is an author, freelance writer and CNN commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @mkhammer