“We are considering all alternatives, including looking at vaccine mandates,” Randi Weingarten said. Nearly 90 percent of teachers are already vaccinated.,

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The head of the most powerful U.S. teachers’ union signals an openness to vaccine mandates.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in Manhattan this year.Credit…Ira Lupu for The New York Times

Aug. 5, 2021, 2:37 p.m. ET

The president of the most powerful U.S. teachers’ union signaled a growing openness to coronavirus vaccine mandates for teachers on Thursday, as the highly contagious Delta variant rips through the country and millions of unvaccinated children are about to return to the classroom.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members across the country, said that she had not ruled out support for a vaccine mandate.

“Things have changed with Delta raging, and with the proximity of the full approval of the vaccines,” she told The New York Times on Thursday. “Because of those two facts, we are considering all alternatives, including looking at vaccine mandates.”

“It’s all about the North Star being, how do we make sure we keep our communities, ourselves, our families and our students safe?” she said.

The three vaccines are being administered under emergency use authorization, but the Food and Drug Administration is planning to fully approve one of the vaccines — by Pfizer-BioNTech — by the start of next month. Fully vaccinated people are protected against the worst outcomes of Covid-19, including those caused by the Delta variant. Children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Nearly 90 percent of teachers and school employees nationwide are already vaccinated, and Ms. Weingarten said she had been focused on persuading the remaining holdouts amid a push to get children back in the classroom.

“Up until the last few weeks, we have thought the way to do it is through persuasion,” Ms. Weingarten said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier on Thursday. But she said she was now considering “all options.”

Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has similarly expressed a commitment to returning to in-person instruction, and has said that any vaccine mandates should be negotiated at a local level.

“Everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated and if they can’t they should be tested on a regular basis,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

Employers generally have the right to require vaccination, and a growing number — from Walmart to the federal government — have begun asking at least some workers to get vaccinated.

Teachers’ unions had been seen as a potential complicating factor to requiring vaccinations in schools, in part because some local contracts may require such a mandate to be negotiated.

But the Delta variant is increasingly creating new urgency around the issue.

This week, the city of Denver imposed a vaccine mandate on many workers, including school employees.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that the state was considering mandating vaccines for teachers if virus numbers continued to worsen. The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s powerful union, has told its members to prepare for the possibility of mandates, even before the vaccine is fully approved by the F.D.A.

Mandates for teachers do not necessarily extend to students. Though schools have long required children to be vaccinated for certain diseases, the youngest children are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine and for now, conversations have centered on whether or not students will be required to wear masks.

Eliza Shapiro contributed reporting