Who put them in charge?
After critics ripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for caving to the powerful American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union over school reopening guidance in February, White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed Tuesday the agency was following a “longstanding best practice.”
Emails obtained by the conservative watchdog group Americans for Public Trust and provided to the Post last week show that a top AFT official described the union as the CDC’s “thought partner” in planning the return of in-person classes.
In a Feb. 1 email, AFT senior director for health issues Kelly Trautner lavished praise on the CDC, thanking officials for what she called a “rich discussion about forthcoming CDC guidance and for your openness to the suggestions made by our president, Randi Weingarten, and the AFT.”
In the same message, Trautner noted that union officials “were able to review a copy of the draft guidance document over the weekend and were able to provide some initial feedback to several staff this morning about possible ways to strengthen the document”.
That email was forwarded to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky by White House coronavirus testing coordinator Carole Johnson. Another email indicated a call between Walensky and Weingarten was set for Feb. 7.
The CDC school-reopening guidelines issued Feb. 12 included at least two carveouts insisted upon by the union. One of those was the statement that while schools can be open regardless of community spread of coronavirus, “[i]n 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 AFT also demanded, and got, guidance permitting teachers “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk for … COVID-19” or “staff who have a household member” with similar conditions to continue working from home.
The emails caused an uproar among Republicans, with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) accusing the CDC Monday of being “a thoroughly politicized agency, bending to the call of teachers unions.”
Psaki described Cotton’s criticism as “false” and argued that “it’s actually longstanding best practice for the CDC to engage with organizations, groups that are going to be impacted by guidance and recommendations issued by the agency.
“It doesn’t mean they are taking everything they want, or even a percentage of what they want, but it’s important to understand the implementation components. They do so to ensure that recommendations are feasible and that they adequately address the safety and well-being of the individuals the guidance is aimed to protect,” Psaki continued. “So, the CDC engaged with around 50 stakeholders that are on the front lines in this pandemic and have requisite perspective for the guidance.”
Psaki did not elaborate on which other “stakeholders” were consulted.
Even as the emails flew in from AFT, Walensky initially appeared bullish on the reopening guidance. During a White House coronavirus briefing on Feb. 3, the CDC head indicated that “safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”
The following day, Psaki claimed that Walensky had merely spoken “in her personal capacity.”