Teachers unions want parents to forget what happened during COVID. Don’t let them.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has kicked off the “What Kids and Communities Need” campaign.

It’s total gaslighting.

What kids and communities need is simple: They need reliable schools where teachers show up and do their job. Yet, that’s not what has happened in far too many cases in the past two years.

There’s a reason why 1.5 million students left their public schools in the 2020-21 school year – parents weren’t happy with extended closures and the uncertainty that came with it. So they chose private schools that stayed open, or they home-schooled.

Never mind those facts. Weingarten is now trying to rewrite history to absolve the union of responsibility for what it did to children and families during the pandemic.

School closures hurt kids

Studies have made clear the detrimental aspects of keeping kids out of the classroom, especially for minority and economically disadvantaged students. And it was these children, in cities like Detroit and Chicago, who were hurt the most by school closures.

Those closures even continued earlier this year, and now learning loss and increased absenteeism plague these schools.

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Does Weingarten regret not pushing harder for a return to in-person learning much sooner?

Nope. She says it wasn’t the fault of unions at all.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is now trying to rewrite history to absolve the union of responsibility for what it did to children and families during the pandemic.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is now trying to rewrite history to absolve the union of responsibility for what it did to children and families during the pandemic.

“What I regret is COVID,” Weingarten said in a recent interview with the USA TODAY Editorial Board. “What I regret is the fear. What I regret is the misinformation. Would I have liked us to have a crystal ball, and know then what we know now, so we could have been more firm about saying, if you do X and Y and Z, we can reopen schools in person? Yeah. Because I think that being in person is most important.”

To hear Weingarten now, she was a strong advocate of in-person learning from the beginning of COVID.

Let’s look at why that’s not true.

'Scream bloody murder'

Weingarten led the charge in pushing back against schools reopening from the beginning. Even as European schools opened to in-person learning in spring 2020, Weingarten told her members to “scream bloody murder” if they felt the slightest bit unsafe.

And they did.

Even though top medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and others at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said early on that prioritizing in-person learning was vital for children’s well-being – and outweighed the risks of COVID – teachers unions prevented a return to the classroom in many districts in the fall of 2020.

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This continued into 2021. Although teachers were placed at the front of the vaccination line, it still wasn’t enough. Nor were the billions in COVID-19 relief dollars sent to schools.

People on the political right are often derided as science deniers and for doubting the guidance of public health experts, but the scientific guidance was firmly on the side of getting kids back to school – until teachers unions got involved.

First lady Jill Biden walks on stage with the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, during the group's convention,  July 15, 2022, in Boston.
First lady Jill Biden walks on stage with the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, during the group's convention, July 15, 2022, in Boston.

Emails leaked last year showed how union influence directly changed CDC guidance at several points. It turns out that the $40 million in union donations to Joe Biden and other Democrats bought them a seat at the “science” table.

Union becomes CDC's 'thought partner'

In February 2021, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said teachers didn’t need to be vaccinated for a safe return to school. This got immediate union pushback, and the Biden administration distanced itself from her comments.

The AFT, which according to leaked emails provided to the New York Post described itself as a “thought partner” for the CDC, also worked closely with the agency in crafting guidance that gave districts the political cover to stay closed for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.

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The CDC didn’t give in on everything. In March 2021, it changed its student distancing policy to 3 feet from 6 feet, drawing ire from Weingarten, who wanted to keep restrictions as prohibitive as possible.

Similarly, the National Education Association helped influence the CDC’s tightened recommendations on masking, forcing children to mask up last school year, long after many Americans had ditched face coverings in public places.

Part of the “What Kids and Communities Need” tour is fighting against what Weingarten calls the efforts of “partisan political extremists'' to sow distrust of public schools.

If Weingarten really wants to address that distrust, she should first look inward.

“This is peak gaslighting from Randi Weingarten,” says Corey DeAngelis, national director of research at the American Federation for Children and a school choice advocate. “Her union fought to keep schools closed for over a year – even lobbying the CDC to do it – and hurt kids academically, mentally and socially. Parents aren't dumb. They're never going to forget how the system prioritized itself at the expense of children at the worst time possible.”

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Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at ijacques@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Teachers union head Randi Weingarten rewrites history on COVID policy