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American Federation of Teachers pushes back on GOP narrative about pandemic school closures

Congressional Republicans have tried to scapegoat teachers for school closures during the COVID-19 emergency, the AFT says.

By Will Fritz - October 16, 2023
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Members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) hold up signs with the union's logo outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on June 30, 2023. (Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) hold up signs with the union's logo outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on June 30, 2023. (Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

A new report from the American Federation of Teachers pushes back on what it describes as a false narrative from Congressional Republicans about school closures and other pandemic mitigation strategies.

Republicans in the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic have spent much of the past two years falsely blaming educators and their unions for pandemic-related school closures, the AFT report from Oct. 10 claims.

“Although the Select Subcommittee was authorized at the dawn of the 118th Congress to investigate a set of nine worthy and important issues relating to the pandemic, including the societal effects of school closures, its work has devolved and deteriorated into an extended effort by the Select Subcommittee’s Republican-led Majority to demonize and scapegoat educators and their unions — including most notably, the AFT and its president, Randi Weingarten,” the AFT says in the report.

Weingarten told the American Independent Foundation the report was necessary to correct the falsehoods House Republicans have been spinning.

“Given that they just lie about what the AFT has done, and what I’ve done personally — they lie all the time — I thought it was important to set the record straight based upon the things that have come out in this investigation,” she said.

Some of the lies Weingarten and the AFT pointed to are repeated claims that the union had “uncommon access” to a draft of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school reopening guidance from February 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden took office.

Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who recently dropped out of contention for House speaker, first pushed this allegation in 2021, and his claims were expanded on in a March 2022 GOP staff report, the AFT said.

“The Majority’s attempt to scapegoat the AFT for the tragic educational consequences of the pandemic has continued for more than two years,” the AFT report says.

press release from March 2022, still up on the House Oversight Committee’s website, repeats those claims, arguing that Democrats should investigate whether the CDC allowed the AFT to rewrite portions of the Biden Administration’s school reopening guidance.

“Each step of the investigation has further refuted the claims of ‘uncommon access’ and improper influence by the AFT, but the facts have carried little weight with the Select Subcommittee’s GOP members,” the AFT report says.

The report further states that whatever influence the AFT may have had on the CDC’s school reopening guidance was appropriate and necessary given the circumstances of the pandemic.

“On the narrow question that has been the object of so much attention from the Select Subcommittee—the CDC’s consultation with the AFT and numerous other stakeholders about the Operational Strategy—it should be obvious that it would have been governmental malpractice not to consult with the AFT and other stakeholders whose understanding and general acceptance of the guidance on opening schools was critical to its acceptance,” the report says.

Weingarten said that Republicans are simply attempting to deflect from former President Donald Trump’s lack of a coherent reaction to the pandemic.

“They’re trying to protect (President Trump), who actually created confusion, and exacerbated the fear that people felt as opposed to doing what countries in Europe did, which was prioritizing schools over bars and over restaurants and over commerce,” Weingarten said. “ But this president prioritized commerce, didn’t prioritize schools, and then turned around at one point or another and said, schools should be open and didn’t do the mitigating work that the Biden administration did.”

House Republicans’ attempts to scapegoat the AFT are just one piece of a larger issue, the AFT report says.

“Regrettably, the effort to scapegoat teachers and their unions for broad societal problems has become an enduring part of our political landscape,” the report said. “Educators in America have always been undervalued and underpaid. Long before COVID-19, educators dealt every day with crushing workloads; insufficient support, resources, and working conditions; inadequate compensation, often compounded by student loan debt; a political climate that weaponizes education; the threat of gun violence; and a fundamental lack of professional respect. Prior to the pandemic, an average of close to 300,000 teachers were leaving the profession each year, leading to a serious shortage of teachers and school staff.”

The report implores Republicans to stop their political games and get back to work.

“The time has come for the Select Subcommittee to do its job: to search for solutions to the extremely pressing problems created by the pandemic and prepare for future pandemics, rather than continuing to politicize and weaponize these important issues,” the report says.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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