Push for answers after emails reveal teachers unions influenced CDC guidance on school reopenings

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Published Thursday, May 6, 2021
by Casey Harper | The Center Square

(The Center Square) - A controversy involving teachers unions, the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on reopening schools has sparked an inquiry from Congressional Republicans.

House Republicans sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Wednesday alleging partisan politics pushed by the White House and teachers unions have influenced the agency's guidance.

"Following public pressure from the White House and your conversations with the AFT [American Federation of Teachers], you changed your position," the letter reads.

The allegations come after recently unveiled emails between the American Federation of Teachers and the CDC suggested the unions had significant influence on CDC guidance for when schools should reopen.

The letter from Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee references these emails, saying they "raise significant concerns about whether you, as the Director of the CDC, are putting politics over science and Biden-Harris campaign donors over children.

"Such revelations also raise serious questions as to whether you are honoring your pledge to ensure CDC guidance is evidence-based and free from politics," the letter reads.

The New York Post first broke news of the emails between top CDC, White House, and AFT officials. The AFT heavily lobbied the CDC in the days leading up to the planned Feb. 12 announcement regarding whether schools should reopen.

The CDC called the AFT a "thought partner" on the guidance in the reported emails and ultimately sided with AFT in delaying support for the full reopening of in-person schooling.

"Thank you again for Friday's rich discussion about forthcoming CDC guidance and for your openness to the suggestions made by our president, Randi Weingarten, and the AFT," AFT senior director for health issues Kelly Trautner wrote in a February email.

"We were able to review a copy of the draft guidance document over the weekend and were able to provide some initial feedback to several staff this morning about possible ways to strengthen the document," Trautner said. "We believe our experiences on the ground can inform and enrich thinking around what is practicable and prudent in future guidance documents."

These and other emails show the AFT reviewing and suggesting new language to the CDC days before the announcement.

"We are immensely grateful for your genuine desire to earn our confidence and your commitment to partnership," reads another email from Trautner to Walensky.

AFT President Randi Weingarten pushed back after the emails were released, calling the New York Post story "misleading."

"Our job is to advocate for our members, students & communities," Weingarten wrote on Twitter. "And in this pandemic we have fought for safety & resources 24/7. This article describes basic advocacy. It's not mysterious or clandestine. It's routine. And this CDC wants feedback from stakeholders including teachers."

Energy and Commerce Republican Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Subcommittee on Health Republican Leader Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Republican Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Va. all signed the letter sent Wednesday demanding answers in response to the released emails.

The committee sent a letter in February demanding the CDC share which stakeholders were influencing the decision-making process on providing guidance for schools re-opening. The CDC's response did not make note of the AFT.

"Unsurprisingly, the AFT praised the very guidance they helped shape," the Wednesday letter reads. "While Ms. Weingarten travels the country in a private jet for in-person meetings, kids sit at home glued to screens as parents are left looking for answers. The AFT's priority is not focused on getting kids back to school, despite studies showing, with appropriate measures in place, in-person learning is safe. However, as the Director of the CDC, your decisions should be guided by science, not political interest groups."

The letter also demands more details surrounding communication between the CDC, AFT and the National Education Association along with other groups or individuals. The CDC has not yet responded to the request.

"CDC's partnership with 'stakeholders' is not the only partnership that matters," the letter reads. "CDC and the Congress also have an important partnership that relies on trust. CDC was not forthcoming when we asked about whose input and what input was being provided to CDC during the preparation of the guidance. To restore this partnership and rebuild trust, CDC needs to be accountable and transparent about the CDC guidance process and detail what input was provided by 'education partners.'"

Republicans expressed outrage over the news.

"The CDC listened to teachers' unions, not families," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "Students are still being kept from classrooms, and parents cannot return to work. Republicans are demanding answers into why special interest groups were given undue influence by the Biden White House."

Critics say the teachers unions are leveraging the pandemic as a bargaining chip in negotiations with districts and city officials. These battles have played out in cities like Los Angeles, where teachers unions have refused to send teachers back to the schools until a list of demands are met. 

"The emails between the Centers for Disease Control and the American Federation of Teachers reveal what many of us have known for far too long: teachers' unions are using the COVID pandemic as a strike they didn't have to call in order to win concessions they couldn't have gained at a regular bargaining table," said Aaron Withe, CEO of the Freedom Foundation. "The CDC was prepared to fully reopen schools across the country in February, but teachers unions are calling the shots in school re-openings by demanding politics over science - including jumping the line for vaccines, more money for school upgrades, remote work, and at least in Los Angeles, free childcare for their own kids."

"It's time to put children over politics and get our kids back to full-time, in-person education," Withe added.

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