Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, fielded lawmakers’ questions Wednesday about her powerful union’s role in school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Weingarten, who leads the nation’s second-largest teachers union, testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic on why the AFT pushed school lockdowns.
The New York Post reported Tuesday that newly surfaced emails from Feb. 7, 2021, show that both the American Federation of Teachers and the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, asked the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help in shaping a public relations strategy so that they could be on the same page in the media.
Emails between the AFT officials and the CDC show that Weingarten’s teachers union may have influenced public health guidelines on COVID-19.
The emails show the union thanked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for “responsiveness to the suggestions made by Randi,” and described itself as a “thought partner” in shaping CDC guidelines during the pandemic.
Emails also show that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the AFT’s recommendations were worked into CDC guidance for schools “with just a few small tweaks.”
Here are highlights from Weingarten’s testimony before the House panel looking into what happened during the pandemic.
1. ‘Talking With Biden Transition Team’
Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, got down to specifics.
“What did the consultation look like?” Wenstrup asked Weingarten. “Did the AFT first engage the CDC, or did the CDC reach out to you?”
Weingarten responded: “What essentially happened, sir, was that we were talking to the Biden transition team before he was sworn into office.”
Wenstrup asked: “Did they reach out to you?”
Weingarten replied: “Yes, the Biden transition team reached out to us.”
Wenstrup asked whether those who reached out to the American Federation of Teachers included Walensky, the future CDC director, or anyone else who went to work for that agency in the Biden administration.
“I don’t want to speculate,” Weingarten responded. “There were lots of meetings with lots of people.”
Wenstrup asked: “When was the first time you engaged with CDC in any way, shape, or form directly?”
Weingarten didn’t provide a clear answer.
“The first time was when they asked us to do the Zoom [call], I think [was] the first time,” Weingarten said, before stopping. “Look, I’m 65 years old.”
Wenstrup said, “Me too.”
Weingarten added: “I don’t remember everything anymore.”
2. ‘Our Activists Who Were in Schools Had Died’
The American Federation of Teachers wanted to push for reopening schools earlier, but couldn’t because of then-President Donald Trump, both Weingarten and Democrats on the subcommittee said.
Weingarten also offered a glimpse of how she views the teachers represented by her union, referring to them as “activists who were in schools.”
“How did the chaos and recklessness in the Trump administration undermine your efforts to advocate for a safe, nationwide reopening of the schools?” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., asked.
Weingarten responded: “What essentially happened was that because there was such chaos and such conflicting information, and because at the beginning of the pandemic so many of—frankly, our activists who were in schools had died. People were fearful.”
In addition to Raskin, other Democrats on the subcommittee defended Weingarten and her union.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., said at one point. “I wouldn’t want to be a witness that got the you-know-what smacked out of them for coming here to testify to this group.”
Mfume apparently was talking about Republicans on the panel.
3. ‘Edit That They Accepted’
Wenstrup asked about the role of the American Federation of Teachers in drafting CDC guidelines for schools during the pandemic.
“Did the AFT ever provide suggested revisions to the CDC’s operational strategy regarding school closures or reopenings?” Wenstrup asked Weingarten. “Did you suggest revisions to their operational strategy?”
Weingarten replied: “What we suggested, sir, was ideas. They asked for ideas.”
Wenstrup: “Your letter to the subcommittee said the AFT proposed a handful of edits to the operational strategy. Is that right?”
Weingarten: “What happened was there was one particular edit that they [CDC] accepted. There were several different ideas that we proposed.”
4. Direct Line From AFT to CDC
Rep. Debbie Lesko, D-Ariz., inquired into how cozy Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers are with Walensky and other CDC brass.
“I’m a member of Congress that sits on two committees that deal with the CDC,” said Lesko, also a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I don’t have a direct number to Director Walensky. Do you?”
Weingarten at first delayed her answer.
“I do not talk to representatives of the government,” Weingarten said.
Lesko asked again: “Do you have a direct number to Director Walensky?”
Weingarten responded with a question.
“Do I have Director Walensky’s direct number?”
“Yes,” Lesko said.
Weingarten finally said: “Yes, I have Director Walensky’s direct number.”
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