In This Episode
As children head back to school, masks should be on the shopping list. But, despite CDC recommendations, in many states they won’t be. Abdul talks about the critical work of protecting children in schools and speaks with Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, one of America’s most powerful teacher’s unions about worker safety in the pandemic and in our schools.
Abdul El-Sayed: Following full FDA approval, companies are implementing vaccine requirements to protect their workplaces and customers. The Biden administration concludes a 90-day intelligence review regarding the origins of the virus. And new research shows that Type 2 diabetes in childhood doubled between 2001 and 2017. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. Imagine going to work every day in a factory averaging over 100 degrees with thousands of other people knowing that 14,000 people a year died in circumstances just like the ones you’re walking into, and two million more got injured. That was the state of American manufacturing in the years after World War II. Production was at an all-time high, as Pittsburgh turned out steel to feed Detroit, which turned it into cars, Boston, which turned it into ship, and Wichita, which turned it into planes. At that time, though, injured and dying workers were seen as necessary costs of America’s industrial might. Meanwhile, corporations made billions without being forced to spend a dime to keep their workers safe. That’s not the case anymore. Today, we have a robust Occupational Safety and Health Administration, otherwise known as OSHA, designed specifically to guarantee a safe and healthful workplace. A worker who worries that their workplace is unsafe, has the right to report it to OSHA, and to be involved in the OSHA investigation. Workplaces are required to spend money to solve safety challenges. OSHA didn’t just happen on its own, its creation in 1970 was the direct result of decades of deep organizing and hard effort from labor organizations representing workers who are the most likely to be injured. Child labor law, worker’s compensation, workers health care—all of these have been the result of the labor movement and hard union organizing. Now, let’s fast forward 50 years:
[News clip] South Carolina Department of Education says it will enforce a mask mandate on school busses starting on Monday.
[News clip] In neighboring DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta, the school districts there taking a stricter stance requiring masks for everyone.
Abdul El-Sayed: As labor has changed, so has the nature of labor organizing. As more of our national workforce is engaged in the service sector, in schools and clinics, hospitals and nursing homes, worker safety has also meant advocating for consumer safety. Protecting the health of nurses and hospital employees means protecting patient safety too. Protecting educators and educational support professionals in schools means protecting child safety too. That connection was made for me when I was serving as Health Director in the city of Detroit. There, school buildings had fallen into a state of profound disrepair, as they crumbled under decades of disinvestment and quote unquote “emergency management,” a draconian policy that robbed communities of local control, putting it in the hands of a single governor-appointed individual instead. I remember walking into a first grade classroom in January. The students, just five or six years old, sat bundled up in their winter jackets because the school’s boiler was broken. I saw a dead mouse in a state of decay in the corner of that room. And as I walked past the gym, I could smell the mold coming from underneath the floorboards. And who was leading the charge to fix it? The teachers’ union who had conducted a sickout to protest the state of the buildings in which they were trying to teach. Those kids, they were trying to learn. I got to speak with several of the teachers and each and every one of them told me about the kids first, they were putting their jobs on the line for the kids, our kids. Which brings us to this moment. Delta is spreading across the country in the latest COVID-19 surge. Millions of people are being infected. A fifth of them are children. In many parts of the country, kids have already gone back to school. And yet, rather than do all that we can to keep them safe, politicians are feeding red meat to their base by banning mask and vaccine mandates, critical tools to keep kids safe at school. Meanwhile, major outbreaks are already developing in school districts across the country.
[News clip] The teacher tested positive for COVID-19 and then 12 of their 24 students got sick.
[News clip] The welcome home was disrupted just three days into the New Year as COVID once again reared its head. 15 positive cases were reported within the district’s 11 schools.
Abdul El-Sayed: Last month, the two largest teachers’ unions in the country supported mask and vaccine mandates for teachers and students, the latest step they’re taking to protect students and their educators. Monday is Labor Day, a celebration of the incredible role that Labor has had in building our society. And on Tuesday, a lot of children across the country are going to go back to school, in the middle of a pandemic. We wanted to learn more about the space where labor and education meet in the midst of this pandemic, so we reached out to Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, one of America’s largest educator unions. How are educators bracing for this moment? What went into supporting school mask and vaccine mandates? And what does this moment tell us about the future of labor and education? More with Randi Weingarten after the break.
Abdul El-Sayed: All right, can you introduce yourself for the tape?
Randi Weingarten: My name is Randi Weingarten. I’m the President of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers.
Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: Randi Weingarten has been a tireless advocate for teachers and students for the past several decades. She’s currently the President of the American Federation of Teachers, representing nearly two million educators, educational supporters, and clinicians. And for the past 18 months, she’s been at the nexus of labor rights and school safety. Recently, she took the courageous position to support school vaccine and mask mandates to protect educators and students. Today, she joined us to share her perspective on this moment and where we go from here.
Abdul El-Sayed: I want to step back and just if you can give us some context about who is the AFT? Who are your members and what role do they play in our communities?
Randi Weingarten: Well, our members are some of the most dedicated and committed people in the world to making a difference in the lives of children, the lives of patients. We represent 1.7 million people, many of whom work in K through 12 education as teachers, as bus drivers, as paraprofessionals. We also have the largest higher-ed. union and we have many people, over 200,000 who work in higher-ed. from adjuncts to full professors. And we also represent over 200,000 people who are in health care, from intensivists to other kinds of doctors to nurses and respiratory therapists and OTs and PTs. And frankly, many of the folks I am honored to represent have been on the front lines of not just COVID, but trying to heal America and trying to engage America and trying to unify America and trying to make sure that our kids thrive.
Abdul El-Sayed: Well, President Weingarten, you make me very, very proud to be an AFT member.
Randi Weingarten: Thank you.
Abdul El-Sayed: And I have to put my cards on the table here for our listeners.
Randi Weingarten: Thanks, Doc!
Abdul El-Sayed: You represent folks who have been on the front lines of this pandemic, taking it on the chin with COVID-19, whether it’s in the classroom or in the clinic or the hospital or the lecture hall. And in so many ways, this has been a galling time for so many, but in particular, as we think about next steps, it’s looking like teachers are more and more in the crossfire as school starts and, you know, unfortunately, political leaders have decided to turn school masking and school vaccinations into the next politically polarizing piece of material that they’re using to try and rile up a base
Randi Weingarten: Right. That’s on top of this summer trying to make honest history, and the teaching of honest history and our history in America, you know, the good, the bad, and the bad of it—trying to polarize that and toxify that.
Abdul El-Sayed: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s just another piece of red meat. Can you give us a sense of what has it been like to be a teacher over the past 18 months?
Randi Weingarten: Oh! Let me use, since everyone is into data instead of anecdotal information, let me use both right now. I love my members. They are some of the most amazing people. They turned on a dime. Let’s talk about the nonmedical ones in education. They turned on a dime in March 2020 when COVID well, COVID had hit many, many weeks beforehand, but when the country finally decided to do lockdowns, they turned on a dime to go from in person to remote. They tried to figure out their own platforms. They tried to figure out how to engage kids. And they got a lot of plaudits because parents for the first time actually saw and had a front row seat to what teachers try to do to engage, trying to make sure the kids felt OK in terms of their education. And then as the different kind of shoals and waves of this pandemic went, they tried to accommodate all of these different situations. Asking for one thing. Just to be safe. Just like our health care members asked for one, thing just to be safe, as they actually tended to the sick and tended to those who are scared and their families. You know, the data about what it has meant, you see the effects on teachers and on nurses. We’re seeing nurses kind of leave the bedside in untold numbers because they’re just, they’re burnt, they’re demoralized. They can’t deal with yet another crisis. And I’m sure, frankly, that’s part of what you’re feeling doc, as well. In terms of educators, what we’re seeing from a study that we did with Rand, 78% of educators last year felt a lot of stress and strain about what was thrown at them and what they had to do to engage and make sure that kids were engaged in learning and were safe and felt safe. And that was double what we’ve seen in other workforces. Half of our members feel really depressed about what was going on. They take it, as their kids in their classrooms are their kids, and they’ve seen everything, the toll that COVID has taken on our kids and the toll it has taken on them and their families. And then the last thing I’d say is that even with all of that, teachers have wanted to teach in school this whole year. Again, all they have asked for is that it be safe. And they also understand the importance of vaccines and the importance of masking and the other layered mitigation. And 90, over 90% of my members have been vaccinated. 93% of our health care members, 90 of our education members, and even higher in terms of our higher education members. And in fact, when I look at the data that we just collected, we went from 73% of our members in March being vaccinated, with many more saying that they wanted to, to now 90% being fully vaccinated with 3% more saying that they either have an appointment or are considering getting an appointment. You tell me another profession that understands and has actually acted on behalf of themselves, their families and their kids the way educators have.
Abdul El-Sayed: And it really puts an exclamation point on the ways that that educators have stepped into this moment and sought to lead. And stepping back, unions have long been advocates for worker safety, and schools traditionally haven’t really been the place that we think about, but I’ll tell you, when I was a Health Director in the city of Detroit, one of the most important forces to making sure that schools were safe and healthy was the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. And we got to partner together to make sure that kids had their schools tested for lead in the water.
Randi Weingarten: I remember doing a couple of lawsuits that we relied on you just because you call balls and strikes in a way that was amazing. And thank you for that.
Abdul El-Sayed: Well, I’m grateful to have been able to work together on that because it meant that kids and teachers were kept safe and healthy in a place where, frankly, if you think about it, we systematically concentrate our most vulnerable people most of the day, most of the year. As you think about this work, you took a very courageous decision, which was to support school vaccine and mask mandates. And it was a controversial decision. What went into that decision and how have you thought about it and what does it say about this moment in the pandemic?
Randi Weingarten: Well, thank you for that. And let me just say, what I’m really grateful for is a few days later, my union was just where I was in terms of policy. And I was really grateful for the unanimous vote from our executive council to basically say, you know—I’ll do it in labor parlance—to basically say that we’re going to work with our employers with whatever vaccine requirements they want, and we will work out the details because teachers have to have a voice in that implementation. And 100%, every single one of our executive council members from conservative, liberal, progressive, and non-progressive areas voted for that. So what I did was I’ve always thought that vaccines are going to be a way of life, you know, but these vaccines were new and there was a lot of disinformation. So in October 2020, we as a union said the most efficacious way of actually getting shots in the arms is to do it in a voluntary way. And I, because of the Delta variant, I thought that things had changed. And I brought people together a couple of weeks ago to reconsider whether we needed to do more than voluntary. And this was in the aftermath of Joe Biden actually saying that there wasn’t going to be a national mandate, but he was asking, you know, businesses, he was asking employers, both public and private, to really come together and to actually get more people vaxxed because the country had not yet at that moment gotten to 70% and we saw that the Delta variant was really and still is the pandemic of the unvaccinated. And so, and you see this in Detroit a lot, there’s a lot of skepticism about whether the vaccines are safe and effective. There’s a lot of history in terms of Black and brown communities and we know what that history is, and we have to be intentional about overcoming that hesitancy. But there’s also a lot of terrible misinformation that’s been out there by the right wing and others that have undermined the confidence in these vaccines. And so what I felt, and this was a matter of personal conscience, you know, I’ve been a labor leader for a long time, I rarely, you know, lead with my personal views, but I felt as a matter of personal conscience and conviction that since I believe in vaccine mandates, I believe that vaccines are a way of life, I believe that these vaccines, I think there’s lots of data, are the most effective tool in us protecting adults, their families, and ultimately, when we can get them for kids two to 12, protecting them—that I felt like I needed to say that we needed to do more than volunteerism, even though there is so much volunteerism that we’ve gotten such high rates in education. And I think that this is an all-of-society approach and that we have to be about community responsibility here. So vax and mask is about community responsibility. If we really believe, as we do, that schools need to be open full time for kids and that we have to keep them open, then we have to take the basic bottom-line precautions that are going to make sure that that happens. And that’s mask, vaccines, and obviously, in places like Detroit, repairing schools that have good ventilation, to actually not have lead in the water, to actually be able to have clean drinking water, to actually be able to wash one’s hands—and these are the things that Biden has paid for in terms of the American Rescue Plan. These are the things that Governor Whitman has tried to make sure get down to schools. And I know these are things that in Detroit and in Lansing and other places we’re trying to do despite the hesitancy of misinformation.
Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, well, I really appreciate that point, because what you’re accentuating here is the fact that these implements work not simply for ourselves, they work for one another, right? Your mask protects me and my mask protects you. Your vaccine protects me, my vaccine protects you—above and beyond protecting ourselves by doing that thing. And it’s only that collective effort do we get the collective benefit, and that is the foundation of public health—however frustrating it is to folks who believe that their responsibilities end where their shoulders do.
Randi Weingarten: And let me just say that, look, we know there are some people who have religious exemptions. I mean, in my religion, there’s not a religious exemption for vaccines. It’s something that people believe are important to save other people’s lives. But there are also real medical exemptions. There are people for whom, they cannot take vaccines, and we have to protect them and care for them. And we have to debunk these myths.
Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: We’ll be back for more of my conversation with Randi Weingarten after the break.
Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: We’re back with Randi Weingarten.
Abdul El-Sayed: I want to ask you here, unfortunately, we have a number of folks who are in positions of pretty incredible power in their various states who are, in order to play to their base, are doing things that are wholly irresponsible when it comes to the well-being of another group of people who can’t get vaccinated at this point, which are people under the age of 12. And you have these bans on vaccine and mask mandates in schools. What do you say to people like Governor Abbott and Governor DeSantis about this? And as someone who has worked on behalf of educators for most of your career, what does it mean when they step in and ban these kinds of policies?
Randi Weingarten: What, I watched when Governor DeSantis did a parody of Dr. Fauci and started putting out anti-Fauci merchandise, and I said on Twitter that you’re going to be responsible for the deaths of so many people. And I got roasted from Fox for saying that. And look, you know, he’s, you know, at that moment in time, I shouldn’t have exaggerated either. But this kind of effort that they are doing is wrong. It is morally wrong. It is, how do you—you have taken an oath of office to actually create and be part of creating safety for the people who live in your state! How dare you abdicate those responsibilities? How dare you actually just put your own personal ambitions over your responsibilities as governors? If they were doctors, they would have to swear to a Hippocratic Oath in terms of the kind of things that they have to do. I think it’s reprehensible what they’re doing. And, but at the same time, look at the public officials in Florida and in Texas that are standing up. Look how many of the superintendents, and we are working with them—look how many of the superintendents and school boards are risking their removal and they’re taking, and Corcoran and DeSantis has taken up their salary, and the bullying and intimidation. And they’re saying, no, we need to have mask mandates. We’re not going to have a parent opt-out. We have seen the evidence of what happens in schools when kids are not wearing masks. So at the same time as there’s been reprehensible conduct that is blatantly politically ambitious, that’s all it is, trying to get the Trump base—at the same time as you see that, that conduct from Abbott and DeSantis, what you also see is this amazing public figures who have stood up on behalf of kids like the superintendent in Dade, and the superintendent and the school board, in Dave, in Broward, in Alachua, in Sarasota which is Trump Country, in Hillsborough, in Palm Beach. And I would say that that kind of profile in courage on behalf of our kids is what’s turning the tide.
Abdul El-Sayed: I truly appreciate you reminding us about the silver lining in the cloud, right, because for every one of these awful, awful policies, you’ve got folks who are courageously standing in and doing what’s best for the kids. I want to ask you, as we wrap up here, what are we getting wrong about the conversation about COVID and our kids? What are we missing, and what are we talking about to get it right?
Randi Weingarten: So what we’re missing and I think it would have been different, virtually any other administration, Republican or Democratic, than Trump, if COVID, when COVID started. What we got wrong from the beginning was that Donald Trump decided to make this a political issue as opposed to a public health issue. And what happened was he put what he believed was his political needs over the, his sworn oath of office to Americans, all Americans. And I think that that as a result, put us on some really bad tracks that you don’t actually see in many of the other countries of the world. Meaning that the disinformation campaigns were rife, that this became a political polarized issue instead of bringing people together. I mean, the irony is, if Donald Trump had done this the right way, he’d probably still be president. You know, as much as I hate that idea, he probably would have still been president. But what he did was—and we got that wrong and there were not enough people in a bipartisan way to stand up and to do what, frankly, the superintendents in these Florida school districts are now doing, that they became about the what would happen in terms of their own political work, as opposed to what do you need to do to keep people safe? And I think that the disinformation and the want of power as opposed to the how do you keep people safe, and how do you actually keep people economically secure during these periods of time? That was the first really fundamental flaw. The second was that this ended up getting booted to, all of the compliance issues, all of the public health issues—you know, think about who they got booted to, the, you know, the people with the least resources. So the federal government maybe did some guidance and then it was conflicting. The federal government booted it to states and didn’t do the corresponding resources, and then states in some ways booted it to local authorities. And it’s really only at the beginning of the pandemic, and now, that we’re seeing state leaders starting to step up again and to say, no, we got to actually with this, we were about to see COVID in the rearview mirror, we have to take responsibility regardless of what ramifications there are politically. And you’re seeing that now. Governor Murphy, in, you know, in New Jersey just did a vaccine-or-test mandate for educators in New Jersey. You’re seeing that from Governor Newsom, both of whom are facing elections or recalls. You’re seeing what Governor Inslee did in Washington State. You’re seeing the mask mandates. I suspect that the new governor in New York, Governor Hochul, is going to do a mask mandate for kids in New York, and she’ll suffer some consequences in right-wing areas. But I think that this is the stuff of getting it right after a long time of not having a consistent, transparent and trusted public health message that said, we were putting the health and well-being and safety of our residents, of our constituents, first and foremost. And then we will also help make sure that economically we save our small businesses, we save our economy, we have rent moratoriums but we make sure that we save our landlords as well. We have student debt moratoriums. We have these things to make sure that we are going to keep people whole as they weathered the storm of COVID.
Abdul El-Sayed: I really appreciate your point about path dependency there, and the fact that once we got off on the wrong foot, it created a precedent that then made it really easy for similarly-minded politicians to Donald Trump to follow and deepen.
Randi Weingarten: I mean, think about the irony that Trump this week was in Alabama and he tried to get people to take a vaccine, a vaccine that he could have taken credit for. But and they booed him. Think about the irony of what he has wrought.
Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, it’s a reminder that Trump-ism is far bigger than Trump. And he doesn’t even have power over the cynicism, over the distrust that he has created and driven in our public policy. I deeply appreciate you for being a light in the shadows here and in helping to support educators and children all over the country and of course, folks on the front lines taking care of patients, whether as nurses or physical therapists or physicians. So, really grateful for you, appreciate you taking the time to join us and happy Labor Day.
Randi Weingarten: Thank you. Thank you, Doc. And thank you for all of your work. And hopefully we will be able to, all across the country, reopen schools, see the spark of our children, help them thrive in the ways that only educators and their parents can, and have the safety protocols so we can keep our schools open. Thank you for allowing me to be here.
Abdul El-Sayed: Of course. Thank you for coming.
Abdul El-Sayed: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now. Last week, the FDA announced this:
[news clip] The FDA has just given full authorization for Pfizer’s COVID vaccine.
Abdul El-Sayed: The FDA’s long-awaited approval opened the door across the nation for vaccine requirements. And this week, employers took the opportunity to require vaccines for workers. Some of the most prominent included the U.S. military, CVS, the University of Minnesota, and Goldman Sachs. As you’ve heard me say before, I think these mandates are critical in the effort to fight COVID-19. Polls show that many Americans, even those who oppose vaccines outright, say they would get a vaccine if they were required to. These employers are stepping up, but if you’re going to do it, just come out and do it. Don’t do this.
[News clip] Now, Delta is saying if you’re not vaccinated by November 1st, it will cost you. Unvaccinated workers will be hit with a surcharge, $200 on their health insurance if they are not vaccinated.
Abdul El-Sayed: Delta, that ain’t it. Delta Airlines announced an added bump of $200 a month in insurance premiums and an elimination of paid sick leave for COVID-19 for unvaccinated employees. Look, let me put my cards on the table. Delta is my go-to carrier of choice, but I’d be a lot more comfortable on board if I knew all the staff on board with me were vaccinated. But this is not the way to do that. Health care costs already account for 67% of bankruptcies in our country, and this paid sick leave policy would incentivize people with COVID to try to come back to work with it. This approach weaponizes the worst parts of our health care system against people. And though I think they should get vaccinated, maybe they should just require it. In other news, the American intelligence community delivered to the Biden administration a 90-day report on the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Despite the new investigation, we don’t seem to be any closer to a definitive explanation of the virus’s emergence. Though the results of the inquiry haven’t yet been released to the public, sources close to the inquiry told CNN that they had low confidence in either hypothesis: that the virus may have originated in the lab, or made the jump from an animal reservoir—which remains the far more likely outcome. Even as we stare down the Delta variant, we can’t lose track of all the other public health challenges we face. New research shows that childhood Type 2 diabetes doubled between 2001 and 2017. And even before that, U.S. rates of Type 2 diabetes were among the highest in the world. Diabetes is a disease of dysregulation of a person’s sugar metabolism. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas just doesn’t make enough insulin, the hormone that tells your body that there’s sugar in your blood and that it should take it into the muscles and liver to be processed. Type 2 diabetes is a complex disease, but it’s basically what happens when you have too much insulin, so much that it wears out the receptors. It’s like repeatedly mashing on a doorbell until it just stops ringing. You can guess what causes Type 2 diabetes then, an overabundance of the thing that insulin is supposed to help us manage: sugar. The fact that Type 2 diabetes has doubled in anyone is awful. But in kids, it’s particularly bad. Kids with Type 2 diabetes are far more likely to suffer it for the rest of their lives, and all of the side effects that come with it: vision loss, nerve damage, heart disease and ultimately early death are far more likely. Mind you, these are numbers from 2017. It doesn’t even include these past few years. Some new research published in the Pediatrics edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests COVD could make it worse. Average BMI among children increased, particularly among kids 5 to 11, for whom key athletic and social activities have been replaced by, well, quarantine, where food and electronics were some of the only sources of joy and entertainment we had. All this reminds us that there’s a lot more work we have to do to protect our kids, not just from COVID, but from corporations who aim to fill them with sugar too.
Abdul El-Sayed: That’s it for today. On your way out, do me a favor and go to your podcast app and rate and review our show—goes a long way to getting it to other folks. If you really like us, go on over to the Crooked Media store and pick up some merch. We’ve got our new logo tees and mugs, our Safe and Effective shirts, and our Science Always Wins shirts and caps.
America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and masters of the show. Production Support from Tara Terpstra, Lyra Smith and Ari Schwartz. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard and me: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening.