The leader of a prominent teachers union told Congress on Wednesday the Biden transition team solicited advice on school closures during the COVID pandemic, preceding a sweeping Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that critics have faulted for keeping children out of classrooms for too long.
During a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) asked American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten if the CDC first reached out to her union or the other way around.
“What essentially happened, sir, was that we were talking to the Biden transition team before he was sworn into office,” Weingarten said. Upon being pressed for clarification, she added: “The Biden transition team reached out to us.”
Chairman BRAD WENSTRUP: "Did the AFT first engage the CDC, or did the CDC reach out to you?"
Randi Weingarten: "What essentially happened sir was that we were talking to the Biden transition team.."
Wenstrup: "Did they reach out to you?"
Weingarten: "Yes. The Biden transition… pic.twitter.com/5trdJh2g3h
— Corey A. DeAngelis, school choice evangelist (@DeAngelisCorey) April 26, 2023
Further questioning led Weingarten to say she could not remember exactly when conversations with the CDC began — at one point remarking, “Look, I’m 65 years old. I don’t remember anything anymore, I’m sorry.” But ultimately the union boss said that she recalled the CDC setting up a conference call on January 29, 2021, which would be a little more than a week after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Intense focus on the CDC during the hearing followed the New York Post reporting that records indicated the AFT and another teachers union, the National Education Association, were in communication with the health agency and the White House.
Those records, obtained by conservative watchdog Americans for Public Trust, revealed Weingarten spoke twice with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in the days leading up to the CDC releasing in February 2021 updated guidance on reopening schools with various precautions after researchers began to find that schools were not major spreaders of COVID. Further, in the two years since, studies have shown profound negative effects from prolonged remote learning, including on children’s well-being and academic accomplishments.
Wenstrup said his panel is investigating whether the CDC “followed science as they knew it, or learned it, or merely accepted outside guidance regardless of available data during its guidance drafting and publication process.”
Was @AFTUnion's role in editing CDC school reopening guidance more political than scientific?
American students and families deserve an answer! pic.twitter.com/N6DLLTpq0S
— Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (@COVIDSelect) April 26, 2023
He pointed to the February 2021 guidance, saying none of three particular recommendations — the use of community spread rates to determine reopening, routine testing, and 6 feet of social distancing instead of 3 feet — were “based in sound science at the time.” And, Wenstrup noted, the AFT supported all three of these recommendations.
Weingarten told lawmakers there was “one particular edit” that the CDC accepted among the “several ideas” proposed by the AFT. She denied that the union suggested “line-by-line edits.”
In addition, Weingarten said she has Walensky’s “direct number.” She also contended: “We spent every day from February on trying to get schools open. We knew that remote education was not a substitute for opening schools but we also knew that people had to be safe.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten: "We spent every day from February on trying to get schools open. We knew that remote education was not a substitute for opening schools." pic.twitter.com/1qNL05VD3u
— Washington Free Beacon (@FreeBeacon) April 26, 2023
In her prepared remarks, Weingarten argued AFT was committed to resuming in-person learning “safely” at schools across the country and she accused the Trump administration of overseeing a “botched response.” With the entry of the Biden administration and the efforts that ensued, in-person instruction jumped from 46% of schools in January 2021 to around 97% in May of that year, Weingarten said.
AFT’s involvement in crafting public health policies was “completely fitting and proper” since the CDC should be expected to “consult with education groups,” she added.