The leader of one of the country’s largest teachers’ unions went head to head with Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, saying assertions the union conspired with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep schools closed longer than necessary at the height of the pandemic are “patently false.”
The accusations—a focal point of an ongoing investigation by the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic—hinge on last-minute revisions made to CDC guidance to reopen schools, released in February 2021, about a year after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States.
The revisions were made after leaders of the union, the American Federation of Teachers, were allowed to review the draft guidance and provide feedback, and before it was released publicly.
Republicans have seized on the collaboration—which resulted in two substantial revisions, AFT President Randi Weingarten said Wednesday—as evidence the union purposefully sought to keep schools closed. The closures had devastating consequences for students’ academics and mental health, committee members said, citing national assessment data. They say the CDC circumvented normal procedures to allow the union’s review.
In a letter to Weingarten in March, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who chairs the pandemic subcommittee, alleged the CDC “deviated from standard practice” by letting her and AFT leaders “revise and edit an internal draft,” and the exchange “coincidentally shifted CDC’s guidance to align with AFT’s agenda—keeping schools closed.”
Weingarten rejected the accusations from majority Republicans during Wednesday’s hearing.
In a memo submitted prior to the meeting, Weingarten said the CDC consulted with more than 50 organizations before releasing the guidelines. It would have been “governmental malpractice of the highest order” to not include the union in the review, Weingarten wrote.
The union represents more than 1.7 million members in education, government, and health care professions in more than 3,000 local chapters across the country.
“Not surprisingly, the CDC would want to consult with the leadership of the country’s largest teachers union to consider our insights, expertise and suggestions on a strategy that would directly affect our membership in matters of life and death,” she wrote.
AFT’s larger counterpart, the National Education Association, was also able to review the CDC guidance before its release, Fox News has reported.
Though billed as a hearing to examine the process of developing the CDC guidance, it at times seemed like more of a postmortem examination of school closures, which were largely decided on the district level, but districts generally followed guidance from state and federal public health officials. Lawmakers’ questions and statements often diverted to other topics, such as the medical knowledge of AFT members, future Republican budget priorities, school safety and gun violence, “culture wars,” and book bans.
Weingarten and Democratic members of the committee were at odds with the Republican majority about what drove the extended school closures.
Republicans claimed the AFT had outsized influence over the development of the CDC’s guidance because of its political donations to Democrats and advocacy groups. The union used that influence, GOP members said, to extend the closures beyond what science and data available at the time supported.
“Your organization has demonstrated that what you actually care about is gaining and exerting political influence and lining your pockets with taxpayer money, even if that is at the expense of our own children,” said Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, a former White House physician for presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Weingarten and Democrats argued that including the union in the development of reopening guidance was appropriate because it affected its members. The AFT wanted schools to reopen as quickly as possible, Weingarten said, but only when public health professionals thought it was safe and with appropriate precautions in place.
“We spent every day from February on trying to get schools open,” she said Wednesday. “We knew remote education was not a substitute for opening schools but we also knew people had to be safe.”
The union’s push for pandemic precautions
To be sure, Weingarten called on schools to reopen safely starting in the early days of the pandemic. The union, which Weingarten has led since 2008, developed one of the first school reopening guides, released in April 2020.
But she was also adamant that schools only reopen with what the union had deemed to be appropriate safeguards—like masking, access to regular COVID-19 testing, and having nurses on staff in schools to help manage pandemic needs. Those priorities were also outlined in the AFT’s 2020 reopening guide.
Those safeguards, and an inability for all districts to access them, were often the sticking points for local unions as they pushed back on district reopening plans.
In July 2020, months after the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the United States, Weingarten said if districts didn’t meet the AFT’s expectations for safe return plans that“nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”
Sending teachers and students back into schools without safety measures in place would have been reckless and unsafe, Weingarten reiterated Wednesday.
“We knew that the safety protocols we advocated for were not an obstacle to reopening schools, as some officials claimed at the time…,” Weingarten wrote in her message to the committee prior to the hearing. “Health and safety protocols were the pathway for students and staff to get back to school and stay in school and to create trust throughout the school community.”
Members of the coronavirus pandemic subcommittee, including Wenstrup, argued that the requested safety precautions—specifically distancing requirements, routine testing, and use of the rate of community spread of the virus to determine opening procedures—were “not based on sound science” but “were all directly supported by the AFT community.”
“It became clear, in fact, essential, long before the beginning of the fall of 2020 semester that schools needed to be and safely could be open for in-person instruction,” Wenstrup said.
Two substantial revisions
The two revisions to the guidance suggested by the AFT and incorporated by the CDC, according to Weingarten’s testimony, were:
- Encouraging schools to provide options, like reassignment or remote work, for staff members who were at high risk for complications if they contracted COVID-19; and
- Adding language that, in the event a new strain of the virus surfaced, the guidance document may need to be revised to respond to different conditions.
The latter equated to a single sentence, Weingarten testified. And adding language to allow flexibility for staff was intended to “try to avoid unnecessary illness or death and allow teachers to continue doing their job,” she wrote in her memo to the committee.
“It is hard to understand how any reasonable and humane person would oppose this suggestion,” Weingarten wrote.
Weingarten was accused by some subcommittee members, including Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, of having an “unusual” opportunity to do “line-by-line edits” of the draft CDC guidance in 2021.
She said the AFT provided feedback and “concepts” for the agency to consider.
Focusing on the future
The consequences of the extended school closures are clear: Students—regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status—suffered major blows to academic achievement, as evidenced by the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s likely to take years to catch kids up academically, alongside the urgent need to address the pandemic’s effects on students’ mental health and social development, experts say.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday said the increase in youth mental health needs, driven at least in part by the pandemic,is the “defining public health crisis of our time,” building on previous calls to action he has made for “an all-of-society effort, including policy, institutional, and individual changes in how we view and prioritize mental health.”
Children’s needs should be lawmakers’ focus now, said Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat. Focusing on “political” allegations of wrongdoing is not helpful, he said.
“These uncredible allegations will do nothing to prepare us for the next deadly airborne pandemic and keep our schools safely open while reducing its transmission,” Ruiz said.