The president of the American Federation of Teachers warned on Thursday about a "brain drain" of experienced teachers if the U.S. does not invest in keeping students and teachers safe from coronavirus this fall.
"If too many of our members believe Donald Trump's hyperbole instead of somebody like Andrew Cuomo's caution about their health and safety, we're going to have a whole lot of people retire early, quit, take a leave at the very same time students need these experienced teachers," AFT President Randi Weingarten told "TODAY."
"We're going to see a huge brain drain in the next few weeks," Weingarten said, adding that many of AFT's members said they would feel safe returning to the classroom with proper social distancing, masks, sanitizing and ventilation.
"They agree with Donald Trump that remote learning is not the best," she said. "They want to see their kids. They know their kids need in-school attention for food insecurity, for lessons."
Weingarten advocated for "reasonable accomodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act" for high-risk teachers. Approximately 20 percent of teachers are over 50, she said.
On Tuesday, Trump threatened to cut off funding to schools that don't reopen.
"In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS," Trump wrote on Twitter. "The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children [and] families. May cut off funding if not open!"
A growing chorus of public health experts is urging federal, state and local officials to reconsider how they are reopening the broader economy, and to prioritize K-12 schools — an effort that will likely require closing some other establishments to help curb the virus spread and give children the best shot at returning to classrooms.
"We need to think about what our priorities are as a society, and some other things may just have to wait," said Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University. "I think there are hard choices having to be made by decision makers."
Schools are crucial to communities in ways that go beyond basic learning. They also provide children with friends, food and other support systems. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports children physically returning to classrooms.
Schools are also a key part of getting the economy going, said David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research.
"It's what allows so many adults, especially people without much means, to get back to work," Rothschild said. "There's this huge downstream effect in the short run of getting people back into school, which you may not be able to say in the same sort of way for bars and restaurants."
But if a community has a high level of infection, public health experts say reopening classrooms will be risky, even if schools try to require masks and follow social distancing guidelines.
Hundreds of children and staff have been infected in COVID-19 outbreaks tied to graduation ceremonies and summer camps, including in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, New York and Florida. Organizers of at least one of the camps said they were following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.