Weingarten refutes GOP charges of teacher union control of pandemic policy
Randi Weingarten. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

WASHINGTON —Steady and calm under a barrage of hostile Republican propaganda, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten refuted right-wing charges of undue union influence on pandemic policy on whether, when, how and if schools should have opened at the height of the coronavirus plague.

Given the chance to refute their unproven charges that AFT in general and Weingarten in particular exercised undue influence over coronavirus pandemic responses, and particularly whether, when, if and how to reopen schools to students, teachers, and staff, she rebutted them all, one by one, fact by fact, date by date and data piece by data piece.

Donning her New York City civics teacher’s persona, Weingarten told the now-Republican-run House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic that its majority’s bleats about AFT’s clout in the schools debate were “false.”

The biggest lie, Weingarten said, was that teachers in general and AFT, in particular, wanted to keep the nation’s public schools, whose teachers educate 90% of all U.S. K-12 students, closed.

The charge “that the AFT and I are responsible for the terrible setbacks, learning losses and other harms suffered by our children during the period many schools” are “wild allegations” which the facts completely contradict, she stated. Then she went point by point, fact by fact, through months of details about meetings on how, whether, if and when to safely reopen the nation’s schools.

Whether the panel’s ruling Republicans believed her is another matter. Their letter inviting her to testify shows they began with preconceived ideas about AFT’s guilt. Weingarten was the only witness at the April 28 session, its second on why schools shut down to combat the pandemic.

“While the CDC has no authority to open or close schools, our members, parents, administrators, and public health officials needed clear, science-based guidance they could trust and rely on that could keep students and staff safe in in-person learning,” Weingarten explained.

“That is what we fought for and did everywhere with whoever was willing to engage with us: School superintendents, school boards, governors, the Trump administration, the Biden administration, the World Health Organization, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or others.”

The CDC, she added, acted rightly when it contacted AFT and all the other groups for aid, something it routinely does, according to former Director Dr. Gail Wilensky. After all, the teachers’ leader noted, CDC is expert on science and infectious diseases, not on how schools work—and vice versa for AFT and other groups interested in schools and teaching kids.

So consultations–that’s all they were–“were completely fitting and proper,” Weingarten said.

One key actor, she said, was missing in action from talks on reopening the schools: Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos. Trump’s Education Secretary, a GOP big giver who was outspoken in hating public schools, their teachers, and their unions, “failed to ever offer any guidance” on how to safely reopen the schools (Weingarten’s emphasis). All DeVos did was “proclaim schools must reopen.”

AFT did much to reopen schools

But AFT did a lot more outside the CDC to help reopen schools, Weingarten told the panel.

“We did town halls with President Trump’s Surgeon General Jerome Adams as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci,” on nuts and bolts of reopening. “We did town halls with the National PTA and other parents’ groups, and with mental health experts such as Dr. Pamela Cantor…We met via Zoom with parent groups that often disagreed with us on Covid-19 safety measures and school closures.” At one Zoom, Dr. Tracy Hoeg, who blasted AFT at the House panel’s prior session on the school closings, “was quite complimentary about the work we were doing,” Weingarten stated.

And the result of all the consultations and evolving CDC guidance, she noted, was that when Democrat Joe Biden entered the Oval Office in January 2021, 45% of the nation’s schools were fully open and receiving students. By May, the percentage had more than doubled.

Though Weingarten didn’t say so, several large cities, notably New York and Chicago wanted to reopen schools too fast, with too few safeguards in place. NYSUT—the AFT local in the Big Apple—worked out a settlement with New York’s school system. But the Chicago Teachers Union, AFT Local 1, had to threaten a strike before Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s handpicked school board agreed to safety measures the teachers said were absolutely needed to protect kids and vulnerable workers.

Speaking directly to panel chair Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, Weingarten continued: “We did all this work…Yet, Chairman Wenstrup, you and this subcommittee are focusing on two lines” in CDC’s guidance for reopening the schools. She said panel Republicans ignored how AFT members, including teachers, mental health professionals, and other staffers, “helped young people recover from trauma, depression, fear, isolation and other effects of the pandemic.

“We did this work as President Trump failed to produce a coherent school reopening plan. We did this work as the Trump administration chalked up the worst record of any developed country in per-capita deaths from Covid-19,” the official name for the coronavirus.

“When the Trump administration failed to provide sufficient safety equipment, the AFT spent $3 million on personal protective equipment like masks, shields, and gloves for frontline workers in schools and hospitals,” she said. It ran vaccination clinics and launched a $5 million back-to-school drive “that supported everything from developing reopening plans [to] back-to-school fairs, door-to-door visits with parents, [and] billboard and radio ads.”

“Our priorities were to open schools safely, keep students, staff, and families safe, to focus on students‘ social, emotional and academic well-being and to get the resources for this.”

“Resources” means money. And AFT and other unions lobbied successfully for extra federal aid to schools in Biden’s American Recovery Act, to help them reopen—safely.

And after slamming DeVos, Weingarten added one more group to the list of liars: Pols.

“We did this work as certain politicians sought to exploit the pandemic and blame the AFT for the way we responded to the Covid-19 crisis.” Weingarten didn’t name names. But prominent ones included right-wing Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas.

“They ignored the science. They ignored that the safe reopening of schools sometimes involved negotiating with school employees, including the issues of Covid-19 testing, ventilation, and vaccinations. They deliberately distorted any attempt by teachers to implement safety measures as

stalling tactics,” Weingarten testified.

“The AFT kept kids’ safety first.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.