Teachers' Union Leader Testifies About School Closures During COVID
Earlier in the pandemic, Wisconsin Republicans brought legal challenges to shutdowns meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Three years into the crisis, decisions regarding school closures around the United States are being revisited in Congress.
Republicans used a hearing last week to question American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. GOP members asked about her union's role in the shaping of federal guidance for reopening schools. Weingarten testified it was appropriate for them to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also noted that the Trump administration downplayed the crisis as it took shape, prompting unions such as hers to step up.
"When the Strategic National Stockpile unstocked, we bought $3 million of PPP for our nurses and for our teachers in schools," she said. "We ran vaccination clinics."
Republicans have focused on correspondence between the CDC and the teachers' union. The GOP believes the union pressured the government to keep schools closed unnecessarily, with learning declines for students later surfacing. Weingarten argued that the public health agency conferred with more than 50 organizations about the guidance.
Weingarten consistently told congressional members that AFT was focused on reopening schools safely. While remote learning isn't an adequate substitute for in-person classes, she said, polling of union members and parents conveyed their desire for strong protocols. A year into the crisis, she said, collective work from stakeholders accelerated progress.
"We went from 46% of schools open for in-person instruction in January 2021 to close to 97% open in May 2021," she said.
Some Republican arguments on the national level are similar to ones from the Wisconsin GOP and conservative groups tied to their cases that wound up before the state Supreme Court. The conservative-leaning court ruled that local health departments had no legal authority to close schools because of the crisis. Local officials argued the ruling hinders their ability to respond to a variety of health emergencies.