Senate Republican Leaders Seek Answers on Teachers Unions’ Influence Over CDC School Reopening Guidance
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Prominent Republican senators on the Senate education committee are urging the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide information regarding the extent of the agency’s communication with teachers unions and whether there has been complete transparency regarding their involvement in school reopening guidance.
In a letter sent to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Thursday, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s ranking member, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine outlined a series of questions about the delay in releasing the guidance from late January to mid-February. The letter requests that Walensky identify all personnel from the administration, including political appointees, who were involved in preparing and reviewing her April 22 letter to the committee. It also asks for a comprehensive list of all "stakeholders" contacted by the CDC, including parents. The senators are seeking access to all documents and communications between the CDC and union employees or members.
They expressed concern in the letter, stating, "The fact that your agency would provide teachers’ unions with privileged access to the agency’s decision-making process on a critical issue such as school reopenings is a breach of trust. Furthermore, your apparent attempt to avoid scrutiny from Congress by providing incomplete testimony is deeply troubling."
This letter is just the latest example of concerns regarding potential political influence over the agency responsible for the nation’s response to the pandemic. During the Trump administration, Democrats investigated whether senior officials were pressuring the CDC, led by Dr. Robert Redfield at the time, to downplay the threat of the virus. Now, Republicans are questioning whether supporters of President Joe Biden have interfered with efforts to reopen schools.
The CDC has not responded to requests for comment.
On February 27, submitted a request to the CDC seeking similar information to that requested by the senators – all documents and communications, such as emails and meeting transcripts, involving the CDC and any interest groups or individuals consulted during the preparation of the guidance. So far, the CDC has only provided internal CDC emails and not the comprehensive list of groups and individuals.
Dr. Walensky testified before the committee on May 11, stating that the agency sought input from over 50 "consumers." During the hearing, she mentioned that the CDC’s communication with unions focused on guidance for schools with immunocompromised teachers.
However, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by organizations like Americans for Public Trust and Open Fairfax County Schools, a parents’ group in Virginia, reveal extensive email exchanges between CDC officials and the unions, particularly the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
The senators’ letter highlighted this discrepancy and stated, "Your testimony appears, at the very least, incomplete, if not inaccurate. The email correspondence clearly demonstrates that the involvement of teachers’ unions extended beyond accommodations for high-risk teachers."
For instance, the AFT advocated for language stating that the CDC could update its guidance in case a new variant of COVID-19 emerged.
In a February 11 email to Dr. Walensky and White House officials, Kelly Trautner, the AFT’s senior director of health issues, suggested, "If high community transmission arises due to a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, it may be necessary to update these guidelines." She expressed concerns that even with safety protocols in place, some schools in areas with high-density and deteriorating infrastructure would not be able to reopen safely.
The final guidance states, "As more information becomes available, prevention strategies and school guidance may need to be adjusted based on new evidence regarding the risk of transmission and the effectiveness of prevention measures against circulating variants."
The Fairfax group, which obtained the emails, agrees with the senators’ concerns and believes that the public should understand why the guidance did not always align with the studies and recommendations received from experts. For example, the CDC initially recommended 6 feet of social distancing, even though research indicated that 3 feet would still effectively minimize transmission. The CDC later revised its recommendation to 3 feet, despite initial opposition from the AFT.
The Fairfax group remarked, "The strict guidelines, many of which the CDC has since relaxed, resulted in slower school reopenings in certain parts of the country where the guidance was treated as mandatory. This aligned with the positions advocated by the AFT and NEA [National Education Association], but it caused real harm to the nation’s students."
"We have had moments of concern about their findings, particularly when it came to the alterations in classroom physical distancing regulations. However, we have a strong admiration for the CDC career staff, who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to their duty," she expressed. "Furthermore, we are grateful that Dr. Walensky, in her role as the CDC’s leader, values input from stakeholders instead of disregarding it."