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Inquiry into teachers unions influence over school COVID closures ramps up

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The U.S. House Committee tasked with reviewing the federal pandemic response is ramping up its investigation into what influence teachers unions had over federal rules that kept schools closed.

Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, sent a letter to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky.demanding all records and communications between her and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Critics note that teachers unions are significant political donors and raise concerns that those funds could have earned undue access to health policy at the expense of students.

As The Center Square previously reported, federal election filings reveal that the American Federation of Teachers and its local affiliates doled out $19,903,532 in political donations in the 2020 election cycle, with almost all of those funds directed to Democrats and liberal groups.

AFT donations in 2020 included at least $5,251,400 for the Democrats Senate Majority PAC and $4,600,000 for the Democratic House Majority PAC, according to filings and data compiled by The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database.

A GOP report released in March last year confirmed these findings and reported that teachers unions had “unprecedented access” to the federal officials in charge of recommendations for school reopenings and COVID policy.

“Teachers’ unions, including AFT, donated more than $43 million to liberal groups and candidates during the 2020 election cycle,” the GOP report said. “The two largest unions – which both endorsed then-candidate Biden for President – have approximately 4.7 million members. [CDC scientist] Dr. [Henry] Walke’s testimony to the Select Subcommittee shows the Biden Administration rewarded their support with unprecedented access to the policymaking process for guidance on re-opening schools.”

Weingarten pushed back on these claims during a Congressional in April with Wenstrup’s subcommittee. AFT argues they were not in favor of keeping schools closed, but for the reopening of schools safely.

“If you have educators in your lives, you know that their priority is their students – to create a safe environment for all children and to prepare them for life, career, college and citizenship,” Weingarten testified at the hearing.. “We know that kids learn best in person, so opening schools safely – even as the pandemic surged – guided the AFT‘s every action.”

With conflicting accounts, Wenstrup is now pushing to get those written communications to show what was really said between AFT and federal health officials.

Wenstrup pointed out that during that same hearing, lawmakers learned that Weingarten had a “direct telephone line” to Walensky.

The latest research shows significant learning loss from students who missed class because of the pandemic.

The Department of Education released data last fall showing that national test scores declined the most in decades largely as a result of learning loss from school closures.

“Average scores for age 9 students in 2022 declined 5 points in reading and 7 points in mathematics compared to 2020,” the report said. “This is the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics. This Highlights report compares performance on the NAEP long-term trend reading and mathematics assessments for age 9 students from the winter of 2020 to results of long-term trend assessments in the winter of 2022.”

Wenstrup says the CDC is largely not cooperating with the investigation.

“The Department of Health and Human Services is continuing its pattern of obstructing Congress by apparently only producing documents already made publicly available via the FOIA,” the letter said. “As a reminder, FOIA does not apply to Congress. While negotiating your upcoming testimony, the Department, apparently on your behalf, wrote that the negotiation was ‘counterproductive to the [S]elect [S]ubcommittee’s broader dealings with the Department.’ The Department’s obstruction will not be tolerated.”

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