The largest teachers union in the United States influenced federal health officials to include rules for universal masking in school buildings, according to newly published emails obtained by a government watchdog group.
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The union, the National Education Association, swayed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the CDC announced on May 13 that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks. The union told the agency in an email that it was prepared to issue a statement criticizing the decision and calling for guidance that masks should be worn specifically in schools, prompting a White House staffer to intervene. The CDC released updated masking guidelines for schools the following day, saying schools should maintain universal masking requirements and “physical distancing should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.”
Watchdog group Americans for Public Trust obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and supplied them to Fox News.
“It's no secret we want to keep our students and schools safe,” said NEA President Becky Pringle in response to the published emails.
On May 14, one day after the CDC declared that vaccinated people could ditch their masks, the NEA was prepared to publicly slam federal health authorities for “releasing the guidance without accompanying school-related updates,” which the union argued “creates confusion and fuels the internal politicization of this basic health and safety issue.”
“CDC has consistently said, and studies support, that mitigation measures, including to protect the most vulnerable, remain necessary in schools and institutions of higher education — particularly because no elementary or middle school students, and few high school students, have been vaccinated,” the rest of the draft NEA statement said. "This will also make it hard for school boards and leaders of institutions of higher education to do the right thing by maintaining mitigation measures. We need CDC clarification right away."
Erika Dinkel-Smith, the White House director of labor engagement, then connected Pringle with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, successfully stopping the powerful teachers union from publicly faulting the White House for ongoing confusion about the protocol for safely returning to classrooms in person as the highly contagious delta variant was spreading at an alarming rate across the U.S.
After a little over an hour, Walensky had spoken on the phone with Pringle, as well as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who oversees the second-largest teachers union in the U.S.
By the end of the day, the NEA had published a statement with a more conciliatory tone.
“CDC’s new guidance on vaccinated people highlights again the critical importance of everyone, including all students who are now eligible, getting vaccinated as quickly as possible,” the updated statement from Pringle said. “CDC’s current recommendation that schools continue to implement existing school-related guidance, including the mandatory and correct use of wearing masks and continuing of social distancing, is an important and welcome clarification about the protections that need to be in place in our schools.”
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This is not the first instance in which teachers unions have been charged with exerting substantial behind-the-scenes influence over school reopening policies. In May, Americans for Public Trust published formerly classified emails between AFT leaders and Walensky in February showing that the union was able to influence the administration’s guidelines for full school reopening this fall. For instance, in preparing the guidelines to say that all in-person instruction should resume regardless of community transmission, the CDC included the AFT’s demand that remote work concessions be made for educators with underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.