Weingarten sets the record straight over school reopening

Truth will out, and nowhere was that more evident than at the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing April 26, where Republican legislators falsely accused AFT President Randi Weingarten of working to keep schools closed during the pandemic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Citing example after example of the AFT’s commitment to the exact opposite—safely reopening, not closing, schools—Weingarten easily deflected the misrepresentations despite rapid-fire questions, interruptions and personal attacks, and level-headed Democratic legislators defended her with the facts.

Randi Weingarten testifying at hearing

“If you have educators in your lives, you know that their priority is their students—to create a safe environment for all children and to prepare them for life, career, college and citizenship,” said Weingarten as the hearing opened. “We know that kids learn best in person, so opening schools safely—even as the pandemic surged—guided the AFT‘s every action.”

“Our agenda was the opposite of wanting to keep schools closed,” she said in written testimony. “It was to reopen them safely.”

A mountain of evidence

Weingarten pointed to “a mountain of evidence that demonstrates our commitment to in-person learning,” including the AFT’s “commonsense, science-backed plan to open schools safely” presented in April 2020. 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. There were AFT-run vaccination clinics; virtual town halls with health experts, parents and educators; and another $5 million for a nationwide back-to-school campaign 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.”

Targeted accusations

The hearing—widely considered an orchestrated attack by the far right on a prominent, progressive teachers union leader—was initiated by Republican members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Among them is Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy theorist who has opposed vaccines, masking and other measures designed to keep children and school staff safe.

Amid accusatory and at times personal questioning and speech-making from Greene and others, Weingarten was steady, calmly reiterating the AFT’s commitment to safe reopening and continued work to address learning loss and trauma. She outlined the tragic losses the country experienced, and is still experiencing, due to the pandemic, even naming individual AFT members who died from COVID-19 and recognizing educators and school staff for their work. “The toll [the pandemic] has taken on our children, on our families, on the country—the lives upended, and the lives lost—is beyond comprehension,” she said in written testimony.

Through it all, AFT members worked to meet the needs of their communities. “Bus drivers and food service workers scrambled to ensure families got ‘grab and go’ meals. Social workers risked their own health to keep helping and protecting kids. Teachers, paraprofessionals and professors crafted innovative ways to help students learn, engage and connect. And, of course, nurses, EMTs, doctors and respiratory therapists put their health and lives on the line, often without adequate personal protective equipment.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saw that the AFT had researched best practices and possibilities, and wanted to tap that knowledge as it shaped national policy.

“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,” Weingarten testified. “The CDC conferred with more than 50 organizations about the guidance. … Not surprisingly, the CDC would want to consult with the leadership of the country’s largest teachers union to consider our insights, expertise and suggestions on a strategy that would directly affect our membership in matters of life and death.”

A small contribution

In the end, just two concepts from the AFT were incorporated into the final CDC guidelines—a few sentences in a 38-page document. One urged schools to “show flexibility to those Americans who were demonstrably at high risk,” as Weingarten described it in testimony, by providing options such as reassignment to remote work for staff with high-risk conditions or staff who would be at high risk for severe illness or death as a result of COVID-19. “This suggestion, merged into a single paragraph of the Operational Strategy, was to try to avoid unnecessary illness or death and allow teachers to continue doing their job,” Weingarten testified. “It is hard to understand how any reasonable and humane person would oppose this suggestion.”

The second concept was that guidelines would be adjusted if a new virulent strain of the virus appeared in the United States. That contribution wound up as a mention in the Executive Summary and as one sentence in the body of the document.

“These two suggestions accepted in part by the CDC are the basis for the wild allegations made … 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 were closed,” Weingarten testified.

“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. That is what we fought for and did everywhere with whoever was willing to engage with us—whether 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.”

Looking forward

The AFT continues to focus on what is best for students and communities as they manage the continuing effects of the pandemic. “Teachers want what students need,” she said. “Let’s work together to help kids recover and leap ahead academically, physically and emotionally.”

“We are asking you to help us help students recover from the effects of the pandemic—learning loss, trauma and sadness,” Weingarten testified. “The unrelenting attacks on teachers over pandemic-era school closings must end as well. Whether you do or do not support the public schools that 90 percent of America’s students attend, if you care about our young people, you should help educators help their students recover and thrive so they can seize their futures. This should not be an ideological or political divide.”  

[Virginia Myers]