Dems, union leaders responsible for school lockdowns face few repercussions, despite evidence that kids harmed

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The Democrats responsible for keeping public schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic have faced zero repercussions more than two years after the lockdowns that left millions of children behind and in crisis.

School closures in the U.S. have had a devastating impact on children’s mental health, development, and future earnings potential. According to data released last month by the National Center for Education Statistics, 70% of U.S. public schools have reported an increase in students seeking mental health services since the start of the pandemic. A study published by the conservative think tank Just Facts reported that the mental stressors brought about by school closures will destroy seven times more years of life than lockdowns saved. 

A study by the American Enterprise Institute also found that nearly 1.3 million students have left public schools since the pandemic began, and schools that stayed remote longer saw even more students leave. The World Bank reported last month that the school closures will cost this generation of students $21 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes, which is far more than the $17 trillion estimated in 2021.

A working paper first released in October 2020, which examined over 10,000 school districts across the country and their reopening plans, found that partisan politics and teachers union strength in a particular area had far more influence on schools reopening than science or local health guidance. 

“Altogether, we find little evidence that the reopening plans adopted by the nation’s 13,000+ school boards were linked to the public health conditions on the ground in their local community,” the study found. 

A woman puts a sign on her car prior to the Occupy City Hall Protest and Car Caravan hosted by Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago, Illinois, on August 3, 2020.
(Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/UKTN via Getty Images)

Evidence shows the main drivers behind the school closures were teachers unions, which donate almost exclusively to Democrats. The American Federation of Teachers has donated 100% – a total of $2,674,719 – to Democratic candidates in the 2022 election cycle, and the National Education Association (NEA) has donated 98.4% – a total of $1,941,045 – to Democratic candidates this cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org.

BIDEN ADMIN KEEPS GIVING TEACHERS UNIONS POLITICAL VICTORIES

“School closures were always more about politics and power than safety and the needs of children,” Corey A. DeAngelis, a school choice advocate and the national director of research of the American Federation for Children, said in a statement provided to UKTN News Digital. “Meanwhile private schools, daycares, grocery stores, and other businesses were able to figure it out from the get-go.”

“These union-induced school closures hurt children academically, mentally, and physically,” he continued. “Teachers unions fought against reopening schools every step of the way. They even lobbied the CDC to keep schools closed longer. Government officials weren’t following the science, they were following the Political Science.”

Despite the numerous studies saying school closures had catastrophic effects on one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, the Democrats responsible for the lockdowns have not been recalled or fired in the more than two years since the pandemic struck.

Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the nation’s most powerful teachers unions, was reelected to serve an eighth term this month at the union’s convention in Boston.

Weingarten slammed Republicans during her keynote speech, describing them as “the anti-public schools crowd, the anti-union crowd, the privatizers, the haters,” who want to dismantle public education, Education Week reported.

“When people with power try to lock in systems that privilege the few, decimate the middle class and make every day a struggle for working people, we fight for a better life for all and for the next generation to do even better,” Weingarten said during the convention, which also featured first lady Jill Biden, a National Education Association (NEA) union member, as a speaker. 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the AFL–CIO, speaks alongside Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, a New York City teachers union, left, during a news conference, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in the Manhattan borough of New York. 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the AFL–CIO, speaks alongside Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, a New York City teachers union, left, during a news conference, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in the Manhattan borough of New York. 

Teachers unions have been targeted by critics for having had a hand in keeping schools closed. Infamously, the AFT and the NEA were discovered to have corresponded with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year to make last-minute changes to school reopening guidance, which included a phased reopening approach for K-12 schools based on coronavirus cases in the area.

Communications obtained by the New York Post through a Freedom of Information Act request by conservative group Americans for Public Trust showed numerous emails between top CDC officials and the AFT just days before the Biden administration released the school reopening guidelines in February 2021. The lobbying efforts were a reported success, as the Post found at least two instances when “suggestions” were used nearly word-for-word within the CDC’s guidelines.

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The CDC had been prepared to allow in-school instruction regardless of transmission rates, but at the suggestion of the union, the guidelines were adjusted to include a provision that said, “In the event of high community-transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary.”

REPUBLICANS EXPOSE ‘UNCOMMON’ CDC, TEACHERS’ UNION TIES ON COVID SCHOOL REOPENING GUIDANCE IN REPORT

The union further requested that teachers be granted remote work access for those “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk.” Similar provisions were included for “staff who have a household member” that is considered high risk to the virus.

Emails reviewed by UKTN News Digital showed that the AFT and the NEA also received a copy of the guidance before the CDC released it to the public. 

Responding to the backlash over the correspondence, Weingarten suggested it was routine procedure.

“This is normal rulemaking, frankly,” she told C-SPAN in May 2021. “This is what every administration used to do. The problem with the last administration is that they didn’t do it.”

Education will be a major issue going into the November midterm elections, evidenced by the devastating Democratic Party election defeat of union-backed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made education and parental rights the central tenet of his campaign. 

Weingarten, who campaigned for McAuliffe, has since been trying to rebrand herself as a champion for keeping schools open, but her past comments show that was not the case.

“There’s no way that you’re going to have full-time schools for all the kids and all the teachers the way we used to have it,” Weingarten said in July 2020.

At the time, Weingarten slammed the Trump administration’s guidelines to reopen schools by fall 2020 as “reckless,” “callous” and “cruel.” She later called on Congress for more federal funding for schools and threatened a strike if they reopened without implementing expansive safety precautions like mask mandates, 6-foot social distancing requirements (up from the CDC’s recommended 3-foot distance at the time), and updated ventilation systems. 

While many school districts across the country, like in Florida, reopened for the fall of 2020, Weingarten was advocating for improving remote learning. 

“We have an obligation to make remote better because until we can really decrease community spread throughout the United States, distance learning and distance working is going to be a fact of life,” she said in August 2020.

In July 2021, Weingarten said “millions” would die from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, but she later walked back her claim.

Weingarten signaled the potential for future school lockdowns as recently as January of this year, tweeting, “There are very real logistical decisions schools are making. We know kids do better in person, but the spike is real. We need adequate staff & the safety measures in place including testing, masking ventilation. There is a lot of stress.”

Weingarten’s tweet came on the heels of her announcement on UKTN that she “personally” supported mandating the vaccine for school children five and older.

The AFT did not respond to UKTN News Digital’s request for comment.

Rochelle Walensky

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who was appointed by President Biden as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2021, repeatedly bowed to pressure from teachers unions on COVID-19-related guidance for schools. She met with parents just one time leading up to the CDC’s release of school reopening guidance on Feb. 12, 2021, her internal calendar revealed, while teachers unions had constant access to her and other high-level CDC officials while influencing last-minute changes to the guidelines.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on November 04, 2021 in Washington, DC. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on November 04, 2021 in Washington, DC. 
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Walensky’s internal calendar indicates she had only conducted one meeting with parents on February 10, 2021 – just two days before the release of the school reopening guidance. The 30-minute Zoom session allowed each unidentified parent just three minutes to “introduce themselves and discuss their needs for safe school reopening,” her calendar showed.

Months later, Weingarten used a screen capture of the event to hit UKTN News and other outlets that began reporting on the CDC’s coziness with teachers unions.

“UKTN, WSJ, NY Post, and The 74 are probably never going to let their readers know that the CDC met with parents too,” Weingarten wrote. “But everyone should know that they did, and that the NYPost knew they did when they wrote their hit piece. This is how the CDC gets stakeholder feedback.”

Teachers unions also influenced the CDC’s masking guidance in May 2021 after the NEA threatened White House officials with publicly releasing harsh criticism, emails reviewed by UKTN News Digital showed.

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The CDC initially announced on May 13, 2021, that fully vaccinated Americans could stop wearing masks indoors and outside, which sparked confusion about how the policy would apply to schools. One day later, on May 14, 2021, Erika Dinkel-Smith, the White House director of labor engagement, said she stopped the NEA from releasing a critical statement that had called for “CDC clarification right away.” Later that day, Walensky apparently held a meeting with Weingarten and NEA President Becky Pringle on the issue, according to the emails. Following discussion and coordination with the Biden White House, the NEA released a statement with a much less critical tone.

On May 15, 2021, two days after the CDC’s initial announcement, the CDC updated its masking guidance to indicate that all people should wear a mask at school regardless of vaccination status. 

A few months later, Walensky slammed schools for reopening without implementing mask and vaccine mandates for school staff and students.

“I want to strongly appeal to those districts who have not implemented prevention strategies and encourage them to do the right thing to protect the children under their care,” she said during a Aug. 27, 2021, White House press briefing.

In March of this year, Republican lawmakers who sit on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report revealing a CDC official’s testimony claiming the agency’s coordination with teachers unions in drafting the guidances was “uncommon.” The report accused Walensky of allowing the AFT to insert language in the reopening guidance “that made it more likely schools across the country would remain closed after February 2021.”

Some Republicans called for Walensky to resign over the coordination with teachers unions.

Walensky defended herself while testifying before the subcommittee on March 30, saying, “As a reflection of what happened after that guidance … 46 percent of schools were open before that guidance, 60 percent just a few months after. Those guidances opened schools.”

The CDC did not respond to UKTN News Digital’s request for comment.

Becky Pringle

Becky Pringle, who was elected president of the NEA in September 2020, vowed to fight the Trump administration and then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ push to get kids back in the classroom. During an October 2020 interview with Politico, Pringle said the union would demand stringent COVID-19-related safety precautions through strikes, protests and sickouts, and by backing lawsuits blocking efforts to reopen in red states like Florida, Iowa and Georgia.

Pringle also slammed Republicans at the time for arguing teachers should be treated as essential workers, arguing that the focus should be on improving the quality of remote learning.

“I don’t think being in front of a classroom of 30 students is like anything else,” she told Chalkbeat in August 2020. “You can’t make that comparison, and just say: ‘They are essential workers, so go back to work.’ You are responsible for students, their safety and their welfare, their learning, and their lives.”

Along with the AFT, Pringle’s NEA corresponded with the CDC last year to make last-minute changes to its February 2021 school reopening guidance, and both unions received a copy of the guidance before the CDC released it to the public, emails showed. 

US Vice President Kamala Harris, right, waves with Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, at the National Education Association 2022 annual meeting and representative assembly in Chicago, Illinois, US, on Tuesday, July 5, 2022.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, right, waves with Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, at the National Education Association 2022 annual meeting and representative assembly in Chicago, Illinois, US, on Tuesday, July 5, 2022.
(Tannen Maury/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In January 2021, just weeks before the CDC released its reopening guidance, a White House staffer facilitated a meeting between Walensky and Pringle, emails showed.

“I’m reaching out to introduce you to Carole Johnson from our Covid team,” Maureen Tracey-Mooney, special assistant to the president for education, wrote in a Jan. 31, 2021, email to Carrie Pugh, who at the time was the senior director of campaigns and elections at the NEA. 

“She’d like to set up a meeting with Pres. Pringle for tomorrow with her and CDC Director Walensky,” Tracey-Mooney wrote.

Less than an hour later, Johnson responded to an email from Pugh, writing, “We would welcome the opportunity to hear directly from President Pringle and to continue to have the benefit of NEA’s insights as we work on reopening schools safely.”

The NEA also successfully pressured to CDC clarify its masking guidance on May 15, 2021, to indicate that all people should wear a mask at school regardless of vaccination status.

Pringle often argued for stricter reopening requirements than the CDC recommended. On Feb. 9, 2021, she argued that teachers should be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, even though the CDC’s Walensky said earlier that week that vaccinations were not a necessary requirement for reopening safely as long as other mitigation practices were in place.

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In October 2021, Pringle voiced support for mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for students in order to resume in-person learning.

“Just like other vaccinations, we believe that and have always believed that school environments are safest when everyone is vaccinated against these infectious diseases. COVID is no different,” she told UKTN News. “We need to make sure that is added to the list of vaccinations that are required for students to go to school.”

On Jan. 13, after the Supreme Court struck down Biden’s vaccine mandate on businesses with over 100 employees, Pringle tweeted, “The Supreme Court’s shocking ruling that OSHA lacks statutory authority to protect workers from the workplace hazards of COVID-19 is a devastating blow to this administration’s efforts to protect millions. This decision will stymie efforts to keep school buildings open and safe.”

During its convention earlier this month in Chicago, the NEA reportedly debated a resolution calling for mandatory masking, COVID vaccines in schools, and permanent remote learning options, though it is unclear if it was adopted.

During her keynote speech on July 3, Pringle praised union members for weathering “countless attacks” over the course of the pandemic, and she said the 2022 midterm elections would be a referendum against those who fight against public education.

“We have become exhausted by the demands created by crippling educator shortages. We have felt our voices grow hoarse from demanding professional pay and the respect we deserve,” she said. “Just as we did in the presidential election of 2020, we will make sure you know who we are. If you stand against our students, we will stand against you. If you vote against our educators, we will vote against you.”

Pringle won’t be up for reelection at the NEA until 2023. Unlike the AFT, which doesn’t have term limits, the NEA only allows executive members to serve two, three-year terms. 

The NEA did not respond to UKTN News Digital’s request for comment.

Gavin Newsom

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat whose candidacy and recall fight was largely funded by teachers’ unions, outraged parents in October 2020 when he sent his four kids back to in-person learning at a private school in Sacramento County, while public schools in the county and much of the state remained closed due to the pandemic.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference after meeting with students at James Denman Middle School on October 01, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference after meeting with students at James Denman Middle School on October 01, 2021 in San Francisco, California.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Newsom had previously ordered all schools, including private, to close on April 1, 2020, for the rest of the school year. He was later sued over the private school closures, and in a win for school choice advocates more than a year later, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July 2021 that the governor violated the fundamental “right of parents to control their children’s education and to choose their children’s educational forum.”

A June analysis by Burbio, which routinely audits 5,000 school districts across all 50 states, found that California remains last only to the District of Columbia for returning to in-person learning.

Over the course of the pandemic, Newsom declined to use his emergency powers to compel schools to reopen amid intense pressure from teachers unions. Even when restaurants and bars were permitted to reopen, many school districts in the state remained closed, especially those with powerful teachers unions like those in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Republicans and parents groups angered over the lockdowns launched a recall effort against Newsom, which failed in September 2021. The California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, donated $1.8 million to the effort to stop Newsom’s recall. 

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But the backlash hasn’t caught up with Newsom yet. Just this month, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept an education innovation award from the Education Commission of the States, and he is reportedly floating a 2024 presidential run in the event Biden doesn’t seek reelection.

“Gavin Newsom won’t be president after what his state did to kids, but maybe Randi Weingarten and the teachers union will give him a job after he fails in his political endeavors,” DeAngelis told UKTN News Digital. “After all, he consistently puts their needs above children’s.”

“California was the worst state in the nation when it came to reopening schools,” he said. “Politicians backed by power-hungry teachers unions put the desires of adults over the needs of children. These union-induced school closures hurt children academically, mentally, and physically. Leaders of states that committed human rights violations against children should be shamed, not celebrated.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to UKTN News Digital’s request for comment.

UKTN News’ Evie Fordham and Joe Schoffstall contributed to this report.

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