The right-wing media's undeserved freakout over a teachers union’s contact with the CDC about reopening schools

Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group are “outraged” the American Federation of Teachers expressed reasonable concerns about teachers' safety after hundreds have died

Fox & Friends hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade

Right-wing media are freaking out after the New York Post wrote about an exchange of emails between officials from the American Federation of Teachers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the agency's guidance on school reopenings. Even though the major teachers union expressed sensible concerns about educators’ safety, reports on the Post story from Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group are choosing to demonize the routine discussion between a government agency and a group representing well over 1 million stakeholders in the CDC’s decision -- one of more than 50 organizations that the CDC contacted for input into its decision.

The New York Post attempted to scandalize emails between the AFT and the CDC

The Post’s May 1 story framed the discussion between the AFT and the CDC in a typically right-wing, anti-union manner. The piece, titled “Powerful teachers union influenced CDC on school reopenings, emails show,” called the emails a “full-court press” and highlighted the AFT’s donations to Democrats during the recent presidential election cycle. But the emails the Post highlighted show a rather mundane exchange:

“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,” wrote AFT senior director for health issues Kelly Trautner in a Feb 1 email — which described the union as the CDC’s “thought partner.”

“We were able to review a copy of the draft guidance document over the weekend and were able to provide some initial feedback to several staff this morning about possible ways to strengthen the document,”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.”

“We are immensely grateful for your genuine desire to earn our confidence and your committment to partnership,” Trautner said in another email to Walensky on Feb 3.

The Post highlighted two suggestions from the AFT that were incorporated in the CDC’s guidance on reopening schools:

The lobbying paid off. In at least two instances, language “suggestions” offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim into the final text of the CDC document.

With the CDC preparing to write that schools could provide in-person instruction regardless of community spread of the virus, Trautner argued for the inclusion of 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.” That language appeared on page 22 of the final CDC guidance.

The AFT also demanded special remote work concessions for teachers “who have documented high-risk conditions or who are at increased risk for … COVID-19,” and that similar arrangements should extend to “staff who have a household member” with similar risks. A lengthy provision for that made it into the text of the final guidance.

The suggestions from the AFT were legitimate concerns

These suggestions reflect genuine evidence-based concerns about teachers’ safety. A February 3 CNN story highlighted teachers who feel helpless and ignored about their safety concerns while hundreds of their fellow educators have died from COVID-19:

There's no definitive number that records exactly how many teachers, administrators and school employees have died of Covid-19, though new reports of deaths seem to surface with increasing frequency.

There was the third grade teacher in South Carolina who used her musical talents to make learning fun. The two married teachers in Grand Prairie, Texas, who died holding hands. The first grade teacher in El Paso who once went viral for teaching students to be kind. The four teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, who died within 48 hours of each other.

Various unions have compiled their own statistics. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teachers' unions, estimates more than 530 of their members died of the virus last year. But one of the more extensive efforts to track educator deaths from Covid-19 comes from a memorial run by the trade publication Education Week.

“We felt a duty and responsibility to remember and to document as best we could the teachers, the bus drivers, the principals, the key people who keep our schools operating day in and day out,” Lesli Maxwell, managing editor of Education Week, told CNN.

As of February 1, the site estimates that at least 707 retired and active teachers, coaches, custodians and other staff members have died of Covid-19.

A mid-January article from the nonprofit education outlet Chalkbeat covered data showing that “teachers and other staff where school buildings are open have higher COVID infection rates than their surrounding communities.” The article explained that the data does not show whether the school staff are getting infected in schools, but “complicates our understanding of the risks of school reopening.” It also reported that a study “found that in Michigan and Washington, reopening schools could exacerbate spread if infection rates were already relatively high.” 

And the spread of a more infectious variant of COVID-19 has convinced at least one infectious disease expert that children should not be going back to school:

New developments in the COVID-19 pandemic have one leading epidemiologist re-evaluating his own advice.

Dr. Michael Osterholm is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He was also a member of Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board during the time between Biden being elected president and inaugurated.

Osterholm previously supported sending children back to school. He said the virus was not a major threat to children. Now, the situation has changed.

“Please understand, this B.1.1.7 variant is a brand new ball game,” Osterholm said on NBC's Meet the Press. “It infects kids very readily. Unlike previous strains of the virus, we didn't see children under 8th grade get infected often or they were not frequently very ill, they didn't transmit to the rest of the community.”

The B.1.1.7 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom. It's now ripping through parts of the country.

In Minnesota, Osterholm said more than 740 schools reported cases of the variant. In Michigan more young people are ending up in hospitals fighting more serious symptoms than previously seen in children with COVID-19.

This is similar to what health officials have seen in other countries.

The British Medical Journal wrote two months ago that “emerging evidence from Israel and Italy (shows) more young children are being infected with new variants of COVID-19.”

All of this shows that the AFT’s concerns that were adopted by the CDC were reasonable.

The CDC said months ago it had consulted with outside groups, including groups representing educators

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced during a February 12 press briefing on the CDC’s school reopening guidance that it “must be based on a thorough review of what the science tells us works. And an understanding of the lived experiences, challenges, and perspectives, of teachers and school staff, parents, and students,” and she explained that the agency had “engaged with many education and public-health partners … about their experiences and concerns.” Walensky said, “These sessions were so informative, and direct changes to the guidance were made as a result of them.” 

This was already in the public record before the Post’s story, and the paper even included a statement from the CDC explaining that these conversations are 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. 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,” Jason McDonald, a spokesman for Dr. Walensky, told The Post.

At the end of the Post’s story, it reported that the CDC had provided draft copies of its guidance to at least three other organizations: the National Education Association, National Association of School Nurses, and National Association of State Boards of Education. Additionally, Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera wrote that the CDC told him it consulted “more than 50 organizations” on the guidance. 

Right-wing media chose to demonize the AFT rather than address its reasonable concerns about school reopenings

Fox News, which has a long history of attacking teachers, teachers unions, and unions in general, was prolific in its negative and fantastical coverage of the AFT’s role in the CDC’s school reopening guidance.

On the May 2 edition of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Pete Hegseth mocked the AFT’s concerns for teachers’ safety, saying that “they’re rigging it so they don’t have to go to work.” Co-host Will Cain chimed in: “So let's be precise about our language. This wasn't the AFT lobbying the CDC. This was the AFT puppeteering the CDC.” He continued, ranting after he quoted the CDC’s statement on discussions with the AFT: “The education of your children be damned. That’s the takeaway in the end we need to understand. There is no sacrifice too great, including the education of our children, to stand in the way of the political agenda of things like the teachers unions and their manipulation of our government bureaucracies like the CDC.”

The next day on Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade declared the discussion between the AFT and the CDC to be an “outrage,” saying: “The people who should be the most outraged, if they are surprised by this, is everybody involved in the Biden administration. They should be outraged by what is happening. Why are the unions talking to the CDC? I want my science to be pure reporting to me. I don't want them dealing with any union or any outside group. They should be outraged by it -- unless they knew, and they were complicit all along.”

On Fox’s America’s Newsroom that day, co-anchor Dana Perino made a nonsensical comparison about this discussion, calling it a “bombshell scandal”: “It's as if -- for comparison’s sake, imagine that ExxonMobil was writing specific guidance on climate change issues and giving it to a Republican administration at the Department of Energy, and they issued it.”

On Fox’s Outnumbered, Fox contributor Karl Rove said copying White House officials in the AFT's emails to the CDC was “a particularly thuggish move.” Later in the segment, Rove framed the CDC’s school reopening guidance as a political gift to the AFT in exchange for its help with electing Democrats.

Things took another turn to the absurd on the May 5 edition of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s morning news show The National Desk, which airs on 68 Sinclair-owned or -operated local TV stations. Anchor Jan Jeffcoat interviewed right-wing school privatization advocate Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, who demanded AFT President Randi Weingarten resign and claimed the AFT got school reopenings delayed:

JAN JEFFCOAT (ANCHOR): The CDC getting some criticism after a report from the New York Post accused the American Federation of Teachers having too much influence on the CDC’s guidance for reopening schools. Joining us right now to share her thoughts is Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

JEFFCOAT: Now, this latest report reveals the AFT and the CDC communicated regularly ahead of releasing those guidelines for schools to reopen. What is your assessment of the report? 

JEANNE ALLEN (CENTER FOR EDUCATION REFORM): Well, the reports started to be pretty good back in February when they said schools can reopen safely. And then the teachers union, namely the American Federation of Teachers under the leadership of Randi Weingarten, said “whoa, whoa, whoa” and got directly involved and changed the report, such that many schools are only opening today. The report was flawed, it was politically influenced, and frankly, it should be an outrage to every teacher in America and every parent that it went down that way. 

JEFFCOAT: And, Jeanne, you took to Twitter in response to that report, saying, quote, “This is politically and morally reprehensible.” And you actually did the hashtag “resign Randi.” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said, quote, “It's actually longstanding best practice for the CDC to engage with the organizations, groups that are going to be impacted by guidance and recommendations issued by the agency.” What was your thoughts when you saw this? 

ALLEN: Yeah, what Jen Psaki, the press secretary, is missing is that, as a 30-plus-year veteran of Washington, here's how you engage: Please write to us, please share your thoughts. All of those thoughts are reviewed. They're not private emails. And so the New York Post and now The Wall Street Journal and many other journals -- nontraditional journals -- have been looking at the emails. And had this been any other administration, these folks would be on the chopping block. There are personal emails between the leadership of the AFT and the leadership of the CDC going way up to the top. It is not public engagement where they solicited parents, teachers, community members. Look, Jan, you have to -- we all have to remember that the AFT was telling the world that we have to make decisions about keeping schools closed -- or let me repeat, let me change that -- we have to keep schools closed based on transmission rates in entire communities, when schools are a microcosm of communities. So why were private Catholic charter schools and many other, and some innovative public schools or districts who have great leaders like Miami open? Because they made decisions based on the population of the individual school community, plus they took all the safeguards that today, Randi Weingarten and the AFT union are on Twitter bragging about that they're taking just today. This has been all about adult power and nothing about children and families. 

JEFFCOAT: And you're calling for the resignation of AFT President Randi Weingarten. What are you expecting to come of this?

In addition to the absurdity of demanding the AFT’s president resign for successfully advocating for the safety of her union’s members and falsely blaming the AFT for delays in school reopenings, Sinclair’s Jeffcoat ignored the school privatization agenda of her guest’s organization. The Center for Education Reform has an advisory board that includes members affiliated with the Alliance for School Choice, four charter schools, and right-wing bigot Glenn Beck’s media outlet, BlazeTV. The organization is also a member of the right-wing State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate front group that creates right-wing model legislation for lawmakers. The Center for Education Reform has also received well over a million dollars in funding from high-profile conservative donors.

Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group have no authority to speak on COVID-19 safety

In addition to all of the reasons stated above, the criticisms from Fox and Sinclair should hold no weight given their records of spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

Since the early days of the pandemic, Sinclair Broadcast Group has pushed COVID-19 misinformation on all of its national platforms: America This Week, Full Measure, and its national news segments aired on local TV stations. This misinformation included sharing anti-Asian bigotry, downplaying the dangers of COVID-19, promoting fake and harmful medical treatments for it, spreading then-President Donald Trump’s lies about the pandemic, and excluding public health experts’ warnings about reopening too early. Sinclair’s America This Week, which had featured such dangerous COVID-19 misinformation that Sinclair pulled one episode from its airwaves and removed commentary from another, also began spreading conspiracy theories and other misinformation about vaccines before the program was canceled in January. This pattern of misinforming about the COVID-19 pandemic has continued on The National Desk.

But even Sinclair’s record of COVID-19 misinformation can’t hold a candle to the lies coming from Fox News. A Media Matters study of Fox News during 2020 estimated that it spread coronavirus misinformation 13,551 times on its weekday programs. Fox’s coverage of the deadly pandemic has been nothing short of a public health nightmare, even while it adopts responsible health measures for its own staff. The face of Fox News, Tucker Carlson, very recently blatantly lied about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Fox hosts’ complaints that science wasn’t followed in these CDC guidelines rings hollow: Since January 25, Fox has undermined coronavirus science in at least 325 segments.

It’s safe to say that both Fox and Sinclair have blood on their hands, and their “outrage” over teachers and CDC experts advocating for safety precautions to be considered in school reopenings amid the ongoing pandemic should be ignored.