Powerful teachers union influenced CDC on school reopenings, emails show
NEW YORK POST
By John Levine May 1, 2021
The American Federation of Teachers lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on, and even suggested language for, the federal agency’s school-reopening guidance released in February.
The powerful teachers union’s full-court press preceded the federal agency putting the brakes on a full re-opening of in-person classrooms, emails between top CDC, AFT and White House officials show.
The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the conservative watchdog group Americans for Public Trust and provided to The Post.
The documents show a flurry of activity between CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, her top advisors and union officials — with Biden brass being looped in at the White House — in the days before the highly-anticipated Feb. 12 announcement on school-reopening guidelines.
“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,” wrote AFT senior director for health issues Kelly Trautner in a Feb 1 email — which described the union as the CDC’s “thought partner.”
“We were able to review a copy of the draft guidance document over the weekend and were able to provide some initial feedback to several staff this morning about possible ways to strengthen the document,”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 continued. “… We believe our experiences on the ground can inform and enrich thinking around what is practicable and prudent in future guidance documents.”
Walensky wasn’t on the Feb 1 email, but it was forwarded to her by Carole Johnson, the White House coronavirus testing coordinator. Many emails included Will McIntee, an associate director of public engagement at The White House.
“We are immensely grateful for your genuine desire to earn our confidence and your committment to partnership,” Trautner said in another email to Walensky on Feb 3.
Emails show a call between Walensky and Weingarten — the former boss of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers — was arranged for Feb 7.
The lobbying paid off. In at least two instances, language “suggestions” offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim into the final text of the CDC document.
With the CDC preparing to write that schools could provide in-person instruction regardless of community spread of the virus, Trautner argued for the inclusion of a line reading “In the event of high community-transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary.” That language appeared on page 22 of the final CDC guidance.
The AFT also demanded special remote work concessions for teachers “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk for … COVID-19,” and that similar arrangements should extend to “staff who have a household member” with similar risks. A lengthy provision for that made it into the text of the final guidance.
The final CDC guidance won high praise from the AFT. “Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” the union said in a Feb 12 press release.
Many others, however, were puzzled and angered by what they saw as the CDC willfully ignoring the science and slow-walking a return to in-person learning even as mounting evidence showed schools were not a primary source of coronavirus infections as long as they followed mitigation strategies.
In a widely viewed CNN interview on Feb 14, anchor Jake Tapper grilled Walensky and demanded to know why the guidelines would allow schools in areas with high coronavirus community spread — know as “red zones” — to opt out of in-person reopening, noting that 99% of US kids fell within those areas, according to a CNN analysis.
“Can you point to any scientific reason for students in the United States not to return to in person classes tomorrow?” Tapper demanded several times.
“If you’re in middle school or high school we would advocate for virtual learning for that group … We really don’t want to bring community disease into the classroom,” Walensky replied, repeatedly refusing to offer a scientific explanation for the reopening avoidance. “We also know that mask breaching is among the reasons that we have transmission within schools when it happens. Somewhere around 60% of students are reliably masking. That has to be universal. So we have work to do.”
Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco who has written extensively on coronavirus, called the CDC-AFT emails “very, very troubling,”
“What seems strange to me here is there would be this very intimate back and forth including phone calls where this political group gets to help formulate scientific guidance for our major public health organization in the United State,” Gandhi told The Post. “This is not how science-based guidelines should work or be put together.”
The close communication between the union and the feds came despite repeated assurances from CDC and Biden officials that the medical guidelines would “follow the science” and be free of political interference.
“I can assure you that this is free from political meddling,” Walensky said when the guidance was released.
The AFT and its affiliates have long been one of the most reliable and deep pocketed donor constituencies of the Democratic party, dropping almost $20 million to elect party members during the 2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The union defended its role in shaping federal COVID policy.
“The AFT represents 1.7 million educators, healthcare professionals and public employees who spent the last 14 months serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. So naturally, we have been in regular touch with the agencies setting policy that affect their work and lives, including the CDC,” said AFT spokeswoman Oriana Korin, adding the union also worked closely with the Trump administration.
The CDC also insisted such conversations are routine.
“As part of long-standing best practices, CDC has traditionally engaged with organizations and groups that are impacted by guidance and recommendations issued by the agency. We do so to ensure our recommendations are feasible to implement and they adequately address the safety and wellbeing of individuals the guidance is aimed to protect. These informative and helpful interactions often result in beneficial feedback that we consider in our final revisions to ensure clarity and usability,” Jason McDonald, a spokesman for Dr. Walensky, told The Post.
McDonald said the agency had worked with a number of other non-governmental parties that would be affected by the guidance and provided them draft copies — including the National Education Association, National Association of School Nurses and National Association of State Boards of Education.