Head of largest teachers’ union on going back to school amid COVID-19

Teachers and school districts are still fighting through the challenges of returning to in-person learning after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, facing a backlash against mask and vaccine mandates, ongoing threats of infection by the highly transmissible Delta variant and political debates around critical race theory.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, fears burnout could take a toll on teachers and school board members.

“I’m worried about educators leaving the profession, and that’s very real, and it’s happening,” Pringle told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on this week’s episode of “The Takeout” podcast. “Our students in college right now, not going into the profession. I’m worried about school board members not running for reelection.”

Public school board meetings have become a flashpoint for debate around vaccine requirements, mask mandates, and teaching racial justice curriculum in schools. In some instances, confrontations have turned physical, requiring law enforcement intervention after parents attacked school staff over the issues.

Pringle, who was elected as president of the union in 2020 and has 31 years of classroom experience, said it’s not just school board meetings that have become contentious and dangerous.

“We have some people coming into our schools, punching teachers, spitting on school administrators because of mask mandates,” Pringle said. “It is absolutely unacceptable. This culture that exists and seems to be permeating many aspects of our society right now of stoking fear and raising civil discourse to a level where we’re threatening bullying, treating people with disrespect.”

As many school systems debate vaccine mandates for students and school staff, Pringle defended adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of inoculations that schools already require.

“We believe that and have always believed that school environments are safest when everyone is vaccinated against these infectious diseases,” said Pringle. “COVID is no different.”

While critical race theory is not taught in K-12 schools, some localities and states have banned alternative types of racial justice education from being taught in schools. Pringle said the NEA will fight against legislation that includes “any effort to keep our teachers from teaching about the full history of this country.”

“[Students] want to be able to wrestle with these issues because they have articulated what they want their society to look like,” she said. “They want to be the leaders of the just society. They want to make it better.” 

She’s also hoping to see President Biden’s Build Back Better legislative agenda become law. “[It] gets to the heart of the inequities, not only in the education system major, but all the systems that impact our students’ ability to learn: housing, health care, food insecurity, all those kinds of things that we know our students need,” Pringle said. “So we are working really, really hard, not only with Democrats to keep pushing for the ‘Build Back Better’ agenda but calling out Republicans and anyone else who doesn’t support our students.”

Highlights

  • Vaccines and school: “We know that vaccines are the number one top, honestly, mitigation vaccine factor in terms of people staying safe and keeping our school environment safe. We know that the vaccines are effective in ensuring that folks if they do get COVID, they don’t get sick, they’re not hospitalized and they’re not dying… And so it’s why, as I said, we thought to make sure educators were vaccinated. And you know what… 90% of our educators, in fact, are vaccinated, and we’re very proud of that number.”
  • Vaccine mandates in schools: “Just like other vaccinations, we believe that and have always believed that school environments are safest when everyone is vaccinated against these infectious diseases. COVID is no different… We need to make sure that is added to the list of vaccinations that are required for students to go to school.”
  • Infrastructure issues in schools: “The “Build Back Better” agenda addresses that, and it gets to the heart of the inequities, not only in the education system major, but all the systems that impact our students’ ability to learn: housing, health care, food insecurity, all those kinds of things that we know our students need.”
  • Violence and heated rhetoric at school board meetings: “It’s not just the school board meetings. We have some people coming into our schools, punching teachers, spitting on school administrators because of mask mandates, because you know, masks, which we know we have evidence after 18 months that they actually save lives. It is absolutely unacceptable. This culture that exists and seems to be permeating many aspects of our society right now of stoking fear and raising civil discourse to a level where we’re threatening bullying, treating people with disrespect, people who have dedicated their lives to educating America’s students.”
  • Teaching social justice issues in schools: “We know how important it is for us as educators to teach the whole history of this country… [Students] want to be able to wrestle with these issues because they have articulated what they want their society to look like. They want to be the leaders of the just society. They want to make it better. And by the way, that’s every generation’s responsibility, right? To make it better, and they want to lean into that challenge.”

For more of Major’s conversation with Pringle, download “The Takeout” podcast on Art19, iTunesSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch “The Takeout” on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of “The Takeout” episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to “The Takeout” on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).    

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