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Michigan teachers unions support Gov. Whitmer's push for in-person option, but have concerns

students and teachers in masks in classroom
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Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that the state is urging schools to have an in-person classroom option no later than March 1.

The state of Michigan wants students to have a chance to come back to their classrooms in less than two months. The state's largest teachers union supports the plan, but wants some assurances.

On Friday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that the state is urging schools to have an in-person option no later than March 1.  

Paula Herbart is the president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA). The MEA is the state's largest teachers union, representing about 120,000 teachers and staff members employed at public schools and in higher education. 

Herbart spoke with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about the MEA's reaction to  Whitmer's plan. 

Doug Tribou: The MEA and several other organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, and the Michigan Association of School Boards, issued a joint statement. It says your groups are committed to supporting their local members as they plan to meet the governor's goal of that March 1 option. That's not a full endorsement of the governor's plan. What are your top concerns about it?

Paula Herbart: Well, health and safety are always our top concerns for our members, and our students, and the communities which they come from and in which they serve. So, that would be the criteria, [and] local control over those return plans and that educators are a part of them.

We know that it's doable to go back face-to-face in classrooms and school buildings because we have some school districts across the state that are doing it currently. But it's in areas where they have strong mitigation strategies, where they have put strict guidelines into place. That's what we need in every school district, all 83 counties across the state of Michigan.

DT: Teachers at any level – kindergarten through graduate school – will tell you that suddenly being asked to teach an online version of an in-person class is a huge adjustment. What are you hearing from your members who have been all virtual so far, but now might soon have to readjust to having an in-person component?

"One of the things that we take very seriously is people's right to privacy and the right to choose." -M.E.A. President Paula Herbart on teachers and staff getting vaccinated

PH: Our members want to be back in classrooms face-to-face with the students. It is a critical piece, to be with one another, in a student's learning process. And educators will say to me, "You know, Paula, I haven't even seen face-to-face any student that I've taught all year. I haven't been able to get to know their faces, really know who they are."

However, one of the things that we need everyone to understand is that it takes a whole community doing these mitigation strategies in order for those classroom educators to get back into the classrooms, to get bus drivers back into busses. We have to all work together, lock arms, hand-in-hand, and not the least of [the steps] is vaccine and getting vaccinated.

DT: Well, turning back to the vaccine, given people's right to privacy, especially about medical issues, it seems like a lot will depend on trust. If parents don't know how many or which teachers and staff members actually got the vaccine, some will always have questions about that. And teachers may have the same concerns about their own colleagues. Does the MEA. have a position on publicizing who's been vaccinated?

PH: We do not have a position on that. One of the things that we take very seriously is people's right to privacy and the right to choose. I can tell you personally, I will get vaccinated. I'm a high-risk candidate. I don't fall in the 1B list like other teachers across the state because I'm not in direct contact with students anymore. Those people that are in direct contact with students really should first have that opportunity to be vaccinated.

DT: The goal everyone has is for kids to get the best education possible. We're getting close to a year since the pandemic began. What are your biggest worries about how these ongoing disruptions at school are affecting kids?

PH: My biggest concern, of course, beyond the health and safety with regard to COVID-19 is their social well-being. We learn from one another in the physical environment as well as just book learning. And so these students are missing those opportunities to learn from one another, face-to-face through play, through activity. And I worry that that has taken a toll.

It's not something that I don't think we can't overcome in the months to come, but it is something that I am concerned about.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page. 

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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