A fight between Republicans and teachers unions three years in the making will come to a head Wednesday as GOP members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic laser in on American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten.
Weingarten will be the sole witness to appear at the 2 p.m. hearing, which Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) has said will “delve into the role Ms. Weingarten and the AFT played in editing the CDC’s school reopening guidance and keeping schools closed longer than necessary.”
Wenstrup was referring to the “Operational Strategy for K-12 Through Phased Mitigation” guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released during the height of the pandemic that made suggestions on how and when schools should reopen for in-person learning.
Weingarten, Wenstrup said, “may have jeopardized the well-being of our nation’s children during the COVID-19 pandemic. If so, she should be held accountable.”
The hearing will not be the first time tension between Republicans and teachers unions has bubbled to the surface, with the GOP’s embrace of school choice and the traditional Democratic support for the unions causing strife for years.
Republican members will no doubt take the opportunity to voice grievances with teachers unions at the hearing, which itself has been a long time coming.
Almost two years ago, Americans for Public Trust released emails they received from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that showed communications between AFT and the CDC regarding the guidance, infuriating the GOP.
“We are grateful for the agency’s effort to bring some measure of organization and framework to guidance. We are likewise grateful for the inclusion of some of the mitigation efforts we have been calling for since last year,” read an email from AFT to the CDC. “It is our hope that we can be engaged early in the process moving forward, as we believe our experiences on the ground can inform and enrich thinking around what is practicable and prudent in future guidance documents.”
The correspondence showed Weingarten joined a call with CDC officials, and the CDC said in emails they accepted some of the suggestions from AFT on the guidance.
Since the release of the documents, Republicans have blamed AFT and other teachers unions for keeping students out of in-person classes, saying their suggestions to the guidance are the reason schools did not open sooner.
AFT, along with others, got an advanced look at the guidance with the ability to make suggestions. Wenstrup sent out letters to 14 nongovernmental organizations the CDC worked with on its guidance asking about communications between the groups.
AFT, however, argues Republicans have blown the influence its union had out of proportion and that the few changes the CDC accepted from it did not have any effect on school closures.
AFT counsel Michael Bromwich, a high-profile attorney who has represented former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and Justice Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford, sent a letter to Wenstrup last week detailing the “false and misleading claims” Republicans have made.
The only proposal changes the CDC approved from AFT, according to Bromwich, was the guidance should encourage schools to provide accommodations for teachers at high risk for COVID-19 and language that said guidance might have to be updated if a new variant caused transmissions to spike.
“During the call, the AFT promised to send the CDC proposed language to consider related to accommodations for high-risk educators and staff, which a senior AFT staff member sent to the CDC on February 1, 2021,” Bromwich said.
Bromwich argued it would have been “irresponsible” for the CDC not to consult with AFT on any of the guidance because the teachers union has 1.7 million members.
Republicans on the subcommittee dismissed the letter last week.
“A letter is like a free throw; no one is playing defense. Next week, Ms. Weingarten will be under oath. The Select Subcommittee appreciates AFT foreshadowing her testimony, and we look forward to discussing it on Wednesday,” a subcommittee spokesperson said.
Weingarten has already submitted her written opening testimony, reiterating much of what Bromwich said in the letter to the committee.
The union leader also spends much of the testimony talking about how she was pushing for school reopenings since 2020, pointing to news articles written about her efforts and AFT’s school reopening plan released in May 2020.
“We did all this work … yet Chairman Wenstrup, you and this Subcommittee are focusing on a few sentences in the CDC’s 38-page Operational Strategy. Not the relentless efforts and numerous steps the AFT took to reopen schools safely,” Weingarten said in the submitted testimony.
This hearing is a sequel: Part one last month examined the general consequences of school closures during the pandemic. The topic ended up becoming a debate over who was to blame for the prolonged closures, with Republicans pointing the finger at teachers unions, while Democrats said it was the fault of the Trump administration in handling the pandemic.
In her testimony, Weingarten is set to reiterate the Democrats’ point during the last hearing, blaming the policies of the Trump administration for schools having to be closed because they weren’t supported in safe practices to reopen.
“It is offensive to suggest, as your letter does, that our agenda was otherwise — to keep schools closed. We are schoolteachers, school nurses and school-related personnel. We teach children, and we believe kids need to be in school. In school buildings,” she plans to say.
“And it is even more offensive to suggest that our views at any time were shaped by considerations other than our profound desire and duty to protect children and their educators from the ravages of COVID-19.”