Opinion: I’m A Teacher and I Think It’s Time to Reopen the Schools

Opinion: I’m A Teacher and I Think It’s Time to Reopen the Schools
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter at Phyl’s Academy in Brooklyn on March 23, 2021. (Image: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

By Briget Rein, current UFT employee and a candidate for New York City Council District 39.

Throughout this pandemic, I have put my faith in three simple words: follow the science. From the initial lockdown to requiring masks in public and staying six feet apart, to the rapid development of multiple vaccines. At the moment, science is telling us that New York is on the path to fully reopen by July 4th!

In spite of what you may have heard, I could not be happier to hear this. People have been quick to point out that I have been against a total reopening of our schools because of my current job working for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Nothing could be further from the truth. I believed that major decisions regarding reopening should be on hold until we got the all-clear from scientists and medical experts. Now that we have received such assurances that we can safely go back to in-person learning, I believe it is time to fully reopen our schools.

Last week, it was announced that the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children as young as 12. Moreover, within hours of each other, AFT President Randi Weingarten has called for all students to be back in school this fall and the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in most public settings – something which New York State has adopted though I, truthfully, will continue to wear my mask for months to come.

I am not naive. I know what people think about the teachers’ unions when it comes to reopening: we wanted to be able to work from home indefinitely. But, again, let’s focus on the science. We know that children can be mild or asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. Furthermore, as we have seen from several members of the Yankees’ coaching and support staff, someone can be fully vaccinated and still get sick.

Unions have a duty to ensure their members have safe workplace conditions. When the school year started, however, the vaccine candidates were still undergoing testing and the Department of Education’s plan for reopening the largest school system in the nation was a mere 32 pages long. Needless to say, teachers were rightfully worried about contracting a potentially fatal illness while at work.

I have been doing my part to assuage these concerns. In my capacity at the UFT, I have been making sure everyone has enough PPE and have dedicated countless hours to our union’s efforts to vaccinate members. I wish we could have gotten this done faster. Unfortunately, our students suffered as a result – they fell behind on classwork and did not see their friends for months. Choosing between children not falling behind academically and socially, and preventing new cases was always going to be a lose-lose situation. Administrators and parents who had to make those hard choices have my deepest sympathies because no matter what, someone ended up hurt.

Today, we have three different vaccines on the market, 70% of all American adults are fully vaccinated, and the government is on the cusp of giving full approval to the Pfizer vaccine and recommending Moderna for children as young as 6 months. While the New York Times reported earlier this month that the United States is unlikely to reach full herd immunity, if one reads beyond the headline, the article explained that health officials believe that is because COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving virus. However, if we all continue to take appropriate precautionary measures, it will become a “manageable threat” not unlike the flu.

Manageability is a good thing because it means that we do not have to constantly live in fear. Already, about 40% of students are back in school. I want that number to go up. Thousands of people are getting vaccinated every day; we all have gotten into the habit of never leaving the house without first putting on a face mask; and most of us carry hand sanitizer around with us everywhere. The science is showing that we can reopen and, most importantly, our students should be back in school. COVID-19 is going to be an ever-present threat in our lives for the years to come but if we all take common-sense measures to stop the spread, we can handle it.

Briget Rein is a current UFT employee and a candidate for New York City Council District 39.

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