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Randi Weingarten says 'Biden transition team’ was first to solicit union’s advice on schools reopening

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the nation’s most powerful teachers unions, testified Wednesday afternoon that President Biden’s transition team was the first to contact her union for guidance on school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Weingarten testified before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic to address her union’s role in influencing public policy on school lockdowns. During her questioning, she revealed that her union’s communications with Biden on school COVID-19 policies predated him taking office.

“Did the AFT first engage the CDC or did the CDC reach out to you?” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee, asked the union leader.

“So what essentially happened, sir, was that we were talking to the Biden transition team before he was sworn into office,” Weingarten responded.

teachers union president randi weingarten

Randi Weingarten (Getty Images)

“Did they reach out to you or the CDC?” Wenstrup asked.

“The Biden transition team reached out to us,” Weingarten reiterated.

“Did that include the next CDC director, or anybody who went to work for CDC?” Wenstrup asked.

Weingarten said she couldn’t remember, but that it occurred sometime in January before Biden’s inauguration.

“You know something, I don’t want to speculate,” she said. “There were lots of meetings with lots of people on Zooms. So, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“I get that,” Wenstrup said. “I understand that. When was the first time you engaged with CDC in any way, shape or form, directly?”

“The first time was when they asked us to do the Zoom – I think the first time,” Weingarten said. “Look, I’m 65 years old. I don’t remember anything anymore, I’m sorry. My recollection is that they set up this January 29, half an hour conference call. That’s my recollection.”

Wenstrup then asked, “So, again, yes or no, did AFT ever provide suggested revisions to the CDC’s operational strategy regarding school closures or reopenings? Did you suggest revisions to their operational strategy?”

“What we suggested, sir, was ideas,” Weingarten responded. “They asked us for ideas.”

Brad Wenstrup

Representative Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio and chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, speaks during a hearing in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

DEMS, UNION LEADERS RESPONSIBLE FOR SCHOOL LOCKDOWNS FACE FEW REPURCUSSIONS, DESPITE EVIDENCE THAT KIDS HARMED

Weingarten and teachers unions as a whole have been targeted by critics for having had a hand in keeping schools closed throughout the pandemic. Infamously, the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) were discovered to have corresponded with the CDC in 2021 to make last-minute changes to school reopening guidance, which included a phased reopening approach for K-12 schools based on coronavirus cases in the area.

The New York Post further reported Tuesday that the AFT was even more deeply involved than previously understood, with Weingarten holding two phone calls with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in the week prior to the guidance’s release.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky

Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, Director, United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; speaks during the COVID Federal Response Hearing on Capitol Hill on June 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. ((Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images))

Communications previously obtained by the New York Post through a Freedom of Information Act request by conservative group Americans for Public Trust showed numerous emails between top CDC officials and the AFT just days before the Biden administration released the school reopening guidelines in February 2021. The lobbying efforts were a reported success, as the Post found at least two instances when “suggestions” were used nearly word-for-word within the CDC’s guidelines.

The CDC had been prepared to allow in-school instruction regardless of transmission rates, but at the suggestion of the union, the guidelines were adjusted to include a provision that said, “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.”

The union further requested that teachers be granted remote work access for those “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk.” Similar provisions were included for “staff who have a household member” that is considered high risk to the virus.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens at the AFL-CIO on June 22, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Emails reviewed by Fox News Digital showed that the AFT and the NEA also received a copy of the guidance before the CDC released it to the public. 

Responding to the backlash over the correspondence, Weingarten suggested it was routine procedure.

“This is normal rulemaking, frankly,” she told C-SPAN in May 2021. “This is what every administration used to do. The problem with the last administration is that they didn’t do it.”

BIDEN ADMIN KEEPS GIVING TEACHERS UNIONS POLITICAL VICTORIES

Weingarten campaigned for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who suffered a devastating election to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin after Youngkin made education and parental rights the central tenet of his campaign. Since then, she has been trying to rebrand herself as a champion for keeping schools open, but her past comments show that was not the case.

“There’s no way that you’re going to have full-time schools for all the kids and all the teachers the way we used to have it,” Weingarten said in July 2020.

At the time, Weingarten slammed the Trump administration’s guidelines to reopen schools by fall 2020 as “reckless,” “callous” and “cruel.” She later called on Congress for more federal funding for schools and threatened a strike if they reopened without implementing expansive safety precautions like mask mandates, 6-foot social distancing requirements (up from the CDC’s recommended 3-foot distance at the time), and updated ventilation systems. 

While many school districts across the country, like in Florida, reopened for the fall of 2020, Weingarten was advocating for improving remote learning. 

“We have an obligation to make remote better because until we can really decrease community spread throughout the United States, distance learning and distance working is going to be a fact of life,” she said in August 2020.

In July 2021, Weingarten said “millions” would die from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, but she later walked back her claim.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks during a March for Our Lives rally against gun violence on the National Mall June 11, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Weingarten signaled the potential for future school lockdowns as recently as January 2022, tweeting, “There are very real logistical decisions schools are making. We know kids do better in person, but the spike is real. We need adequate staff & the safety measures in place including testing, masking ventilation. There is a lot of stress.”

Weingarten’s tweet came on the heels of her announcement on CNN that she “personally” supported mandating the vaccine for school children five and older.

School closures in the U.S. have had a devastating impact on children’s mental health, development and future earnings potential. According to data released last year by the National Center for Education Statistics, 70% of U.S. public schools have reported an increase in students seeking mental health services since the start of the pandemic. A study published by the conservative think tank Just Facts reported that the mental stressors brought about by school closures will destroy seven times more years of life than lockdowns saved. 

A study by the American Enterprise Institute also found that nearly 1.3 million students have left public schools since the pandemic began, and schools that stayed remote longer saw even more students leave. The World Bank reported that the school closures will cost this generation of students $21 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes, which is far more than the $17 trillion estimated in 2021.

A working paper first released in October 2020, which examined over 10,000 school districts across the country and their reopening plans, found that partisan politics and teachers union strength in a particular area had far more influence on schools reopening than science or local health guidance. 

Despite the numerous studies saying school closures had catastrophic effects on one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, the Democrats and union leaders responsible for the lockdowns have not been recalled or fired in the more than three years since the pandemic struck.

Weingarten was reelected to serve an eighth term last year at AFT’s convention in Boston.

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In her prepared testimony, Weingarten called on lawmakers to “think bigger than the faulty premise of this inquiry,” which is the claim that AFT inappropriately coordinated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2021 to make last-minute changes to school reopening guidance

“With a strategy focused on opening schools, it was completely fitting and proper for the CDC, which specializes in science, not education, to consult with education groups. The CDC conferred with more than 50 organizations about the guidance, according to Dr. Walensky,” Weingarten’s says in her prepared remarks. 

“Any claim that the contact the AFT had with the CDC was unusual or inappropriate, particularly in reviewing its February 2021 Operational Strategy, is simply wrong,” she says. “We are asking you to help us help students recover from the effects of the pandemic—learning loss, trauma and sadness. The unrelenting attacks on teachers over pandemic-era school closings must end as well.

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