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Lawmakers Press CDC About Teachers’ Union Influence on School Reopening Guidance

By Evie Blad — May 11, 2021 3 min read
Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce President-elect Joe Biden's health care team on Dec. 8, 2020.

GOP senators pressed the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday about reports that a national teachers’ union had input on the agency’s guidance on school reopenings.

Officials with the American Federation of Teachers suggested changes to a draft of the recommendations, the New York Post recently reported.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the Senate education committee, told CDC Director Rochele Walenksy the emails cited by the Post create the impression that the union had unfair influence into the guidance.

“There’s a chain of information that suggests people had preferred access to not only advice but actual language that went into the guidance,” he said at a committee hearing with federal health officials Tuesday, citing emails between the AFT, the CDC, and the White House that were obtained through a public records request.

The AFT was not the only outside organization the CDC consulted in drafting its recommendations “as a matter of practice and in an unbiased fashion,” Walensky insisted.

She echoed earlier comments by White House officials that federal health officials reached out to groups representing educators, school leaders, and state officials to ensure their recommendations were informed by the practical realities they faced.

The emails obtained by the Post show the union pushed for a few changes after reviewing a draft of the recommendations: language about how schools should address the needs of staff with health vulnerabilities, and a caution that the guidance may need to be updated “in the event of high community-transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2.”

The updated guidance, released in February, was part of an attempt by the Biden administration to rebuild public confidence and consistency after months of shifting directives under the previous administration.

Some parent groups around the country have blamed the influence of teachers’ unions for the sometimes slow pace of school reopenings during the pandemic.

Biden pledged to “follow the science,” trusting health officials to create directives that would keep students and teachers safe while stressing the importance of in-person learning. The most recent federal data, collected from a representative sample of schools, found 44 percent of 4th graders attended in-person class full time by March, and another 21 percent attended hybrid classes online and in-person.

Even as more schools open for hybrid and in-person instruction, GOP officials have used the issue as a key criticism of Biden on cable news shows and with constituents.

“Parents are rightly frustrated at the willingness of all levels of government to bend to cynical political elites ahead of their children,” said a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona from two lawmakers Monday.

Those lawmakers—Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the House education committee, and Rep. Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican— asked Cardona to detail how unions and other organizations had informed his agency’s efforts.

AFT President Randi Weingarten has defended her organization’s involvement with the reopening guidance.

“Working with the CDC to ensure #COVID19 safety isn’t ‘lobbying,’ it’s collaboration,” she tweeted Monday. “It’s how we build trust to get people back into classrooms and businesses. It’s how we, and dozens of other groups, have been working to keep our communities safe.”

To be sure, the national teachers’ unions haven’t always been pleased with the CDC’s recommendations on COVID-19 and schools.

Both the AFT and the National Education Association issued terse initial statements after the agency revised its social distancing recommendations from 6 feet of space between students down to 3 feet, with appropriate precautions. Weingarten later said she came to support the change.

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