Randi Weingarten, head of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, said educators were “terrified” during the COVID-19 crisis but rejected claims she strong-armed Biden officials to keep schools closed for longer than necessary in early 2021, drawing a rebuke Wednesday from House Republicans who said the advice was designed to keep kids home.
Ms. Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, took numerous swipes at former President Donald Trump in a high-profile grilling on Capitol Hill, saying he dismissed the seriousness of the virus early on.
She said her work with the Biden team began in early 2021, during the transition, and featured recommended edits to a February 2021 school-reopening strategy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We needed clear science-based guidance to keep students and staff safe in schools,” Ms. Weingarten said. “It made sense to consult with the CDC and it was not only appropriate for the CDC to confer with educators, it would have been irresponsible for them not to.”
Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic said the union had a direct line to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, raising questions about process and political influence. They said the resulting guidance seemed to reflect the union’s demands for flexibility if a new variant appeared, and a remote-working option for teachers at high risk of illness.
“It’s unusual for a political union to have such a role in the scientific guidance process,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, Kentucky Republican.
At one point, Ms. Weingarten acknowledged she had Dr. Walensky’s direct number.
“Well hopefully, she’ll give it to me, too,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, Arizona Republican.
The CDC accepted an AFT recommendation that at-risk, or immunocompromised, workers could get an accommodation of some kind, according to Ms. Weingarten.
“They asked us for ideas,” she said. “There was one particular edit that was accepted.”
Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, also highlighted emails from AFT to the CDC that pushed for a trigger threshold that would automatically shut down schools.
Ms. Weingarten said they “wanted a number” because most teachers are not scientists and it would be the easiest way to follow new guidance.
The switch from classroom instruction to remote learning was one of the most notable societal shocks of the pandemic and generated a political backlash still resonating in key electoral races. Students tried to keep up with reading, writing and arithmetic from their computers while parents juggled their work lives and oversight of their kids’ at-home instruction.
Mr. Trump asked Americans to stay home for a while in the spring of 2020, but pushed schools to reopen later in the year. Yet labor unions and blue states resisted, citing fear of the virus and staffing problems, including the inability to find substitute teachers.
By 2021, critics said President Biden was too cozy with teacher unions and too quick to seek their input on reopening. Decisions on whether to reopen ultimately rested with local districts, with New York City schools, for example, gradually reopening in spring 2021 and fully reopening in fall 2022.
The president took a harder line around the time of a Chicago teacher walkout in January 2022, saying in-person instruction could be done safely despite the circulation of the omicron variant. Republicans said he deferred to unions for too long.
Mr. Wenstrup faulted the teachers’ union for championing CDC guidance that focused on data on the community spread of the virus and six feet of distancing instead of three feet. Taken together, he said, strict adherence to the guidance would have kept schools closed in more than 90% of U.S. counties.
“Community spread does not reflect school spread,” Mr. Wenstrup said, saying school environments were often safer than the wider community.
He said the emphasis on six feet of physical distancing, meanwhile, made it difficult for some schools to reopen.
Dr. Walensky has defended the circulation of CDC guidance outside of the agency, saying the AFT was among dozens of groups, including school boards and parent groups, that saw the draft document and offered input.
Ms. Weingarten, meanwhile, is a frequent target for prominent Republicans. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo famously said she is the most dangerous person in the world.
Despite that backdrop, Mr. Wenstrup struck a civil tone with Ms. Weingarten.
He said the hearing was not designed to attack teachers or claim that teaching during the pandemic was easy. But the chairman said it was important to establish the facts and ensure that health decisions are based on science and not political favors.
“Were some opinions accepted and others not considered? And why or why not? These are questions we need to ask,” Mr. Wenstrup said. “This is a process problem, this is a process concern.”
Ms. Weingarten said part of the reason she pushed for strict guidance is that she lived in New York and heard ambulances nonstop.
“Are members were terrified, others were terrified,” she said. “What we were simply looking for was clear scientific guidance. And we couldn’t get it, we did it ourselves.”
Democrats said Mr. Biden provided the resources that schools needed to reopen during an unpredictable pandemic. They also redirected attention to the unfolding debate over legislation to lift the nation’s borrowing limit.
The proposed GOP budget and debt-limit proposals “would have disastrous consequences for our communities —such as removing 60,000 teachers from schools serving low-income students, eliminating more than 101,000 childcare slots, excluding nearly 1.2 million children and mothers from essential nutrition programs and decimating lifesaving mental health programs. Right now, America’s children need our support,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, California Democrat.
Mr. Wenstrup rebuked the other side of the dais, saying the hearing was about school closures and not a side fight over federal spending and the debt limit.
Witnesses at a March hearing on school closures testified that school leaders knew early on the virus posed a low risk to young people — deaths from the virus overwhelmingly involved the elderly —but they feared the political consequences from powerful labor unions who put instructors’ demands first. They said the U.S. fell behind Europe in getting kids back into the classroom even as leaders tried to reopen bars and gyms.
Jenny Beth Martin, the honorary chairwoman for Tea Party Patriots Action, said Wednesday’s hearing was an “accountability moment for Ms. Weingarten.”
“At every step along the way of the COVID crisis, she ignored the science to keep kids out of classrooms,” she said. “Even as every other industrialized country was returning to in-person learning, American children were suffering because of Randi Weingarten’s political agenda.”
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