Confirmed: Teachers union helped formulate CDC "scientific" guidance on school reopenings

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A leftover from the weekend via the New York Post. There’s nothing unusual about special interests lobbying the federal government to try to influence policy, of course. But there’s cause for squeamishness when (a) it’s the “scientific” branch of the government responsible for pandemic guidance that’s being pressured and (b) the special interest in question happens to be a hugely generous benefactor of the party in power.

The Post has documented two changes to CDC guidance that were made at the behest of the American Federation of Teachers, but that’s only because there are actual documents — emails — to substantiate those. There were also phone calls between the AFT and CDC apparatchiks, including Rochelle Walensky. Who knows what sort of rules were sought by the AFT in conversation that didn’t make it into discoverable written communications.

With the CDC preparing to write that schools could provide in-person instruction regardless of community spread of the virus, [AFT exec Kelly] 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…

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.”

Walensky and AFT President Randi Weingarten apparently spoke by phone on February 7, five days before the CDC released its overly cautious new guidance on school reopenings. What did the two discuss? We’re left to wonder, but it’s worth noting that even members of big media were surprised by how timid the agency’s recommendations for schools ended up being. Jake Tapper grilled Walensky on February 14 about the fact that the vast majority of school districts would need to remain closed under the new CDC rules based on the current levels of community spread even though teachers were already being vaccinated and kids were unlikely to transmit the virus. Walensky struggled to respond. Why?

Maybe the “community risk” guidelines were more of an AFT policy than a CDC policy. “This is free from political meddling,” Walensky said of the school reopening recommendations when she announced them on February 12, but we know now that’s not true. How much has the CDC been following politics instead of science in keeping kids out of the classroom and marooned at home with virtual learning?

And will they continue to do so this fall? A lot of parents, especially moms who had to quit their jobs to pick up the slack created by the unions, are keen to know:

Weingarten answered the criticism by noting that the AFT contacted the CDC under Trump more often than it has under Biden. Well … yes, that makes sense given that 11 of the 14 months of the pandemic happened with Trump as president. But even if the time were more balanced, there’s a world of difference between the AFT lobbying a party that depends heavily on its largesse and a party that’s antagonistic to it. “The CDC sought approval of scientific guidance from political donors while ignoring actual experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics so unions could get more money (much harder if schools are open) while they ramped up political donations,” says Rory Cooper. “It’s corruption top to bottom.” Trump was an outspoken advocate of reopening schools ASAP last summer, against the AFT’s wishes. The Biden administration has been far more cautious, tying reopening to school spending in the massive COVID relief bill, as the AFT wanted. Of course the AFT lobbied Trump’s administration more often, then — it had to, as Team Joe and his CDC didn’t need nearly as much persuading to carry out the union’s agenda.

I’ll leave you with Anita Dunn being asked yesterday by Tapper whether schools will reopen in the fall, something that Biden recommended just a few days ago. Notably, Dunn hedges — they’ll probably reopen this fall, she says, but you never know when one of those pesky variants might emerge to foul things up. She’ll get back to us in August, I assume, after she’s had a few phone calls with Weingarten.