The Donald Trump administration has officially designated teachers as essential workers as part of an effort to encourage schools to open for in-person instruction this year, despite many school districts that have opened early being hit with coronvirus outbreaks in students and staff. As first reported by CNN, the White House added teachers to its nonbinding list of essential workers, which advises educators exposed to COVID-19 cases who remain asymptomatic to remain at work instead of quarantining.
Vice President Mike Pence announced the decision to governors on a call earlier this week, a source familiar with the decision told CNN. Now, in line with the Department of Homeland Security guidance issued this week, teachers will be considered "critical infrastructure workers" and are subject to the same kind of guidance as other professionals such as doctors and police officers. This will no doubt be a controversial decision, as the coronavirus' spread in schools has led schools across the country to weigh heavily the decision to reopen in person or rely on virtual instruction, as well as hybrid models that are being experimented with.
Pence confirmed Friday on Fox Business the new teacher designation as essential workers, but said it was not a mandate. "There's no mandate in that, Maria. What that is, is when you're declared an essential it means you're going to be prioritized for things like PPE and support. But we want to get our kids back to school but we also want our teachers to know that we're going to make the resources available so that their schools can be a safe environment," he said during Friday's appearance.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the president was attempting to "threaten, bully and coerce" teachers into classrooms without considering their safety.
"If the President really saw us as essential, he'd act like it. Teachers are and always have been essential workers — but not essential enough, it seems, for the Trump administration to commit the resources necessary to keep them safe in the classroom. Rather than fund these protections, create a plan and guidance for how to ensure that school buildings can reopen safely, and follow the science," Weingarten said. "The Trump administration will always try to change the rules to threaten, bully and coerce. No doubt this new 'guidance' will be used as a pretext by Trump-supporting governors to force students and educators into unsafe buildings to serve the president's political agenda."