The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed the nation’s second-largest teachers union to help write COVID-19 guidelines that led to extended school closures during the pandemic, according to a report released Wednesday.
The findings are included in an interim report issued by Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which is investigating the government’s response to the pandemic.
The committee’s Republican investigators found that officials of the union, which heavily backed Democrats in the 2020 elections, “wrote key portions” of the CDC’s February 2021 report setting guidelines for when and how schools should reopen. Questions of whether and how long schools should be shuttered and in-class instruction should be restricted quickly became some of the most divisive issues in the nation’s response to the pandemic.
Under President Biden, the CDC “overrode routine practice to allow a radical teachers union that donated millions of dollars to Democrat campaigns to bypass scientific norms and rewrite official agency guidance,” said a joint statement by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the coronavirus panel, and Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Documents in the report show the White House and CDC staff communicating extensively with union officials about a draft of the school reopening guidance before it was issued on Feb. 12, 2021, according to emails obtained by the Republicans through Americans for Public Trust, a right-leaning watchdog group that sought the information through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Republicans said the Biden administration “indicated a willingness to accept near-verbatim edits to the Operational Strategy.”
Republicans said the teachers union persuaded the CDC to rewrite the draft to include “closure triggers” to shutter schools in the event of increased COVID-19 transmission, which resulted in thousands of school closures across the country last year.
The CDC authorized the guidelines as many education advocates were warning of the social and educational costs of keeping schools closed. The teachers unions, led by the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, were resisting a swift return to in-person learning with warnings that schools lacked adequate measures to prevent coronavirus transmission and protect students, teachers and school staff.
Republicans say that what they called the unprecedented input from the AFT in the February 2021 guidelines contributed to thousands of schools staying closed during the 2020-2021 academic year.
Among changes union officials secured, according to the report, was the inclusion of language authored by AFT President Randi Weingarten that made it harder for schools to staff up for reopening.
Ms. Weingarten wrote language accepted by the CDC that called for schools to allow teachers and other staff to remain working remotely or take other assignments if they or someone in their household was at high or increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
The policy, Ms. Weingarten wrote to White House staff, should be made in consultation with medical and human resources professionals “keeping in mind Equal Employment Opportunity concerns.”
Union officials also added a line stipulating that the CDC’s guidance on school openings would be updated or changed if “a new variant” of the coronavirus emerged.
Republicans said the collaboration contradicted a long-standing practice of keeping draft guidance confidential. They pointed out that access was granted after the teachers union, led by the AFT and its larger rival, the National Education Association, gave $43 million to Democrats during the 2020 election cycle.
Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the CDC, told The Washington Times that there was nothing unusual about the agency’s interactions with the AFT and that the “collaborative conversations” helped prepare the way for two-thirds of the nation’s schools to reopen full time for in-person learning by May.
“The strength of this guidance resulted in 99% of schools being open and children being in the enriching environment of a classroom during the [coronavirus delta variant] surge in the fall of 2021,” she said.
The Republican report includes testimony from CDC officials who said the collaboration with the union was not typical. Republican lawmakers said the Biden administration blocked CDC officials from answering questions from members of the committee about the extent of their collaboration with the teachers union.
Republican staff members interviewed Dr. Henry Walke, the director of the Center for Preparedness and Response at the CDC and former COVID-19 incident manager, who acknowledged that it was “uncommon” to share draft documents with nongovernment groups or to allow them to edit documents.
Biden administration attorneys blocked Dr. Walke from responding when Republican staff asked him why the CDC broke with precedent and shared the document with AFT officials for editing.
Officials at the AFT did not respond to a request for comment on the report.