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Teachers union boss has CDC director's direct line, credits Biden transition for connection

Randi Weingarten tended to meander and equivocate when Republicans asked yes-no questions, providing responsive answers only when asked repeatedly.

Published: April 26, 2023 11:01pm

Updated: June 4, 2023 11:15am

The 15-year president of the American Federation of Teachers, a major source of Democratic Party fundraising and foot soldiers, has the CDC director's direct phone number. A Republican member of Congress on two committees with CDC jurisdiction does not.

Randi Weingarten played metaphorical pickleball with Republicans at a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing Wednesday on AFT's role in developing CDC guidance that led public schools to remain closed long after much of Europe reopened schools with few of the "layered mitigation" measures AFT demanded, particularly 6 feet of distance between students.

Subcommittee Republicans, then in the minority, released a report a year ago finding the CDC skirted "customary scientific processes" in giving AFT access to draft guidance for suggested edits. 

The union successfully added a "trigger" to automatically shut down schools if transmission hit a certain level, and got a sentence removed that said all schools can remain in-person at "any level of community transmission." The new sentence said updating guidance "may be necessary" if a new variant emerges that raises transmission.

"While children could get and transmit COVID-19, it was rare," Chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said in his opening statement. Children's risk of dying from COVID "has been estimated as one in a million," far lower than dying by suicide, "a crisis exacerbated by school closures."

Weingarten's critics were watching closely Wednesday. Nonprofit Restore Childhood noted that when Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) asked if AFT's experts told her about COVID's low risk to children in summer 2020, Weingarten started discussing how layered mitigation — masks, distancing, testing and the like — reduces transmission.

Miller-Meeks pointed her to an American Academy of Pediatrics study in summer 2020 that said children do not drive transmission. Weingarten said she knew that children have "less" COVID, a formulation Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) would adopt when she emphasized "less susceptible does not mean [children are] not susceptible." 

Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos contradicted Weingarten's claim that the former refused to confer with AFT on COVID school policy. "That is a plain out lie," DeVos told Fox News. "She never asked for a meeting, she never asked to confer," and neither did education unions.

The union boss tended to meander and equivocate when Republicans asked yes-no questions, providing responsive answers only when asked repeatedly. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) eventually prompted Weingarten's admission that she had CDC Director Rochelle Walensky's direct number, which Lesko does not.

Asked who contacted whom first, the CDC or AFT, Weingarten told Wenstrup that President-elect Biden's transition team "reached out" to AFT to make the CDC introduction. The union was then included in a Jan. 29, 2021 Zoom call with the CDC, when it talked directly to Walensky. 

"I don't want to speculate," she said when asked if the transition contact included the next CDC director. "I'm 65 years old. I don't remember" many details. It was the first of many responses that recalled former White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci's 174 "I don't recall" answers in a deposition.

Weingarten couldn't explain why she bolded the sentence "the CDC is not mandating the reopening of schools" in a newsletter to members.

The Biden administration's reopening guidance would be better called "school closure guidance," and AFT had access to it two weeks before its release, House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) said.

Weingarten said she remembered only that she received the guidance after the Jan. 29 Zoom meeting but denied AFT made "line by line" suggested edits. "We suggested concepts" and "ideas," such as "robust testing."

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) contrasted AFT's conditions for school reopening with Sweden and Germany's fast reopening, despite the fact that schools got $190 billion in federal COVID relief funding and yet only 15% has been spent. "Republicans have been vindicated" in their opposition to rushed spending that raised inflation, Malliotakis said.

Sweden came up again when Lesko noted the contrarian Scandinavian country, which didn't have mask mandates either, had no children's deaths from COVID. Weingarten claimed Sweden and Denmark used the "layered mitigation we were championing" to reopen, but she didn't specify measures. Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.) said the Scandinavian comparison was inapt because those countries have universal child care and health care.

American non-educational establishments reopened before schools because "unlike in Europe, the economy was prioritized," Weingarten said while noting children faced a "Hobson's choice" because they would be in school all day. 

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