As the CDC was planning to publish guidance that it was secured to reopen schools fully in February, emails received through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the AFT was behind the scenes, lobbying the agency and the Biden administration to modify the guidance to make it more helpful to school closures and mixed education.
“Thank you again for Friday’s rich discussion about forthcoming CDC guidance and for your openness to the suggestions made by our president, Randi Weingarten, and the AFT,” AFT Senior Director for Health Issues Kelly Trautner wrote in one of the emails.
“We were able to review a copy of the draft guidance document over the weekend and were able to provide some initial feedback to several staff this morning about possible ways to strengthen the document,” Trautner continued. “We believe our experiences on the ground can inform and enrich thinking around what is practicable and prudent in future guidance documents.”
In later emails, Trautner praised CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky for her “commitment to partnership” with the organization as the CDC neared the release of renewed guidance.
“We are immensely grateful for your genuine desire to earn our confidence and your commitment to partnership,” Trautner said in an email to Walensky in February.
The CDC was preparing to modify its direction to show its belief that schools could fully resume, despite the community spread of COVID-19. But the AFT successfully persuaded the CDC to add a line reading, “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” while allowing teachers “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk for … COVID-19” to work from home.
The CDC guidance stopped short of calling for all parties to reopen, instead opting for color-coded charts that suggested that districts in “red” zones with “high” community spread keep their middle and high schools closed to in-person learning.
“Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” the AFT said in a statement following the updated CDC guidance. The new guidance came as the CDC and Biden administration worked to assure people that instructions being released from Washington would “follow the science,” assurance some skeptics now doubt because of the back channel dealing between the CDC and AFT.
“What seems strange to me here is there would be this very intimate back and forth, including phone calls where this political group gets to help formulate scientific guidance for our major public health organization in the United States,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who called the emails “very, very troubling.”