EXCLUSIVE: House Republicans are demanding answers from the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on whether new school reopening guidelines were based on politics and Democratic campaign donations rather than coronavirus science.
GOP leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are raising alarms over newly released emails that show a flurry of communication between CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, her top advisors and teachers union officials. The emails revealed that the powerful teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was making language suggestions for the CDC’s latest school reopening guidelines released on Feb. 12.
The emails “raise significant concerns about whether you, as the Director of the CDC, are putting politics over science and Biden-Harris campaign donors over children,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., wrote Walensky on Wednesday in a letter obtained first by Fox News.
“Such revelations also raise serious questions as to whether you are honoring your pledge to ensure CDC guidance is evidence-based and free from politics.”
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, who is being challenged by Democrat Lisa Brown, speaks during a debate, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, in Spokane, Wash. McMorris Rodgers is questioning the CDC school reopening guidelines. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Rodgers is the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee. She was joined in the letter by Morgan Griffith, R-Va., and Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., who also serve on the committee that has oversight over healthcare matters.
The Republicans tell Walensky that the emails “shed new light on your public about-face” on her stance on whether schools can safely reopen without teachers first being vaccinated.
Walensky initially said in early February that data suggests schools can safely reopen — even without teachers needing to be vaccinated. But the White House later undermined Walensky’s comment and emails revealed that AFT President Randi Weingarten had a phone conversation with Walensky, too. Afterward, Walensky’s public statements changed to encouraging states to give teachers priority in vaccinations, the letter states.
“The AFT’s priority is not focused on getting kids back to school, despite studies showing, with appropriate measures in place, in-person learning is safe,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, as the Director of the CDC, your decisions should be guided by science, not political interest groups.”
The members are demanding answers on the scope of the communication between the CDC and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) and more information on how the powerful teachers unions influenced the union-approved guidelines.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – MARCH 30: CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks to the press after visiting the Hynes Convention Center FEMA Mass Vaccination Site on March 30, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Walensky recently said she had a sense of “impending doom” as the rate of coronavirus infection has recently been rising across the U.S. (Photo by Erin Clark-Pool/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
The Republicans also allege “the CDC was not forthcoming” with the Energy and Commerce Committee when members previously asked for names of any stakeholders engaged by the CDC during the preparation of the updated guidance. On March 17, 2021, the CDC sent a response but did not provide information on this item, the letter states.
The emails between the CDC and the teachers unions were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the conservative watchdog group Americans for Public Trust and provided to The New York Post.
The CDC defended its conversations with the unions as routine.
“As part of long-standing best practices, CDC has traditionally engaged with organizations and groups that are impacted by guidance and recommendations issued by the agency,” Jason McDonald, a spokesman for Walensky, told The Post. “We do so to ensure our recommendations are feasible to implement and they adequately address the safety and wellbeing of individuals the guidance is aimed to protect. These informative and helpful interactions often result in beneficial feedback that we consider in our final revisions to ensure clarity and usability.”
But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the emails between the CDC and the teachers union show politics at play. Teachers unions are major political donors to Democrats, including to President Biden.
“We shouldn’t have a politicized public health bureaucracy like the CDC answering at the beck and call of the teachers’ unions,” Cotton told Fox News earlier this week.
The White House Tuesday defended the CDC conversations with the unions when pressed by Fox News and rejected the notion that the health agency is politicized.
Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, speaks, along with Everett Kelley, left, National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, during the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” protest against racism and police brutality, on August 28, 2020, in Washington, DC. Weingarten has been in touch with the CDC about school reopening guidelines, emails show.
(Photo by Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
“It’s actually a longstanding best practice for the CDC to engage with organizations and groups that are going to be impacted by guidance and recommendations issued by the agency,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
Psaki said the CDC “engaged with around 50 stakeholders” total in advance of the guidance — not just the unions.
“It doesn’t mean they are taking everything they want or even a percentage of what they want,” Psaki said. “…They do so to ensure that recommendations are feasible and that they adequately address the safety and wellbeing of the individuals the guidance is aimed to protect.”