US teachers’ union leader supports vaccine mandate for educators as delta variant surges

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers during a town hall with 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and members of the American Federation of Federation of Teachers, in Philadelphia, PA, on May 13, 2019

As a growing number of companies are requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the president of the American Federation of Teachers union said on Sunday that she personally supports a vaccine mandate for educators.

"Vaccines are the single most important way of dealing with COVID. We’ve always dealt with — or since 1850 we’ve dealt with — vaccines in schools; it’s not a new thing to have immunizations in schools," Randi Weingarten said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "And I think as a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers — not opposing them on vaccine mandates."

Weingarten made her comments after visiting last week some U.S. cities in a back-to-school campaign, saying the delta variant spread she saw was "alarming." 

RELATED: US averaging 100,000 new COVID-19 infections a day

The U.S. is now averaging more than 100,000 daily new cases, a milestone last exceeded during the winter surge. Cases are being driven by the highly transmissible delta variant and low vaccination rates in the South.

Health officials fear that cases, hospitalizations and deaths will continue to soar if more Americans don’t embrace the vaccine. Nationwide, 50% of residents are fully vaccinated and more than 70% of adults have received at least one dose.

But of course, children aged 12 and under aren’t eligible yet for the vaccine, a factor that Weingarten said she’s been considering heavily. 

She said the leadership board of the union will meet this week to "revisit and reconsider" the policy the union passed in October, which was to keep teacher member vaccines voluntary. Though, she said teacher members have really "stepped up" and that more than 90% of them have been vaccinated already. 

"But I do think that the circumstances have changed and that vaccination as a community is a responsibility, and it weighs really heavily that kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated," she said. 

Weekly tallies by the American Academy of Pediatrics based on state reports show that COVID-19 cases in kids increased nationally in July after a couple of months of declines.

Data available as of July 29, 2021, showed children represented more than 14% of all new COVID-19 cases reported. Over two weeks, the cumulated number of child COVID-19 cases increased by 3%, their data found, and that children made up from 1.3% - 3.5% of hospitalizations, depending on the state. 

"At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children," the AAP said. "However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects."

RELATED: AAP: Students, staff should wear masks in schools — regardless of vaccination status

Last month, the AAP recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month recommended mask-wearing indoors only for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.

The recommendations weren’t embraced by some state leaders, who responded by banning face coverings altogether in the classroom come fall. 

Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have banned mask requirements in public schools. 

At the other end of the spectrum, California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state intend to require masks for all students and teachers regardless of vaccination status.

"There’s a lot of fear right now all across the country. But what teachers actually know, that the single most effective protection for them is to get a vaccine. Which is why you see our numbers ... I think we are probably the most vaccinated profession right now," Weingarten said. "But (the teachers in classrooms that banned masks) are scared and we’re polling them right now, but they also know, let me just be clear — the number one priority is to get kids to be back in school."

"We know kids need to be in school."

RELATED: Unvaccinated Americans not changing their views, behavior on COVID-19 pandemic, study finds

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.