Randi Weingarten, Anthony Fauci, and why we are still talking about pandemic school closures

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Randi Weingarten makes a point at the microphone.

WASHINGTON — Long gone are the days when American children started their school day with a laptop at the kitchen table. Since the Omicron surge of early 2022, schools across the United States have resisted closing because of concerns about the coronavirus.

But the bitterness over school closures has not dissipated. Millions of American children continue to experience the emotional, physical and intellectual aftereffects of the months confined at home.

Earlier this year, Germany's health minister, Karl Lauterbach, admitted that school closures had been a “big mistake.” There has been no such acknowledgment in the United States. If anything, positions have only hardened with time, and are likely to stay that way as the 2024 election approaches. That could help Republicans, who generally pushed to reopen schools — and much of the rest of society — faster than Democrats.

“The Democratic Party is responsible for these prolonged school closures, and public health aligns very strongly with Democrats,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, told Yahoo News. “Moreover, it may be that admitting wrong looks like they were at fault. Instead of apologizing, politicians in this country seem to take a position of doubling down. I do not understand it.”

New report sheds light on failures

Seen through a school gate, children assemble on the playground, with a sign posted saying: Attention! To prevent the spread of COVID-19, please wear a face mask. Thank you.
Children arrive at Sutherland Elementary School in Chicago in March 2021. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

There has been no national bipartisan commission to investigate the nation’s response to the coronavirus, a panel akin to the one that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and produced a report that was widely hailed as a revealing (and highly readable) chronicle of shoddy intelligence work and political inattention, leading to tragedy.

But last week saw the publication of “Lessons From the Covid War,” a 300-page report by the Covid Crisis Group. The nongovernmental commission was led by Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 panel. Its 34 members included a diverse array of experts, from a Harvard ethicist, Danielle Allen, to former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Peggy Hamburg.

The authors make clear that a virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans could have been much better handled by a nation previously thought to have the world’s top pandemic response plan. “No country’s performance is more disappointing than that of the United States,” they write in their introduction.

The reports faults the Trump administration for not having a plan to reopen schools once it became clear, in the summer and early fall of 2020, that they could do so safely. It also says Congress should have provided dedicated funds to do so.

Instead, school reopening became a politicized issue, to the detriment of millions of children. “Closed schools, even with remote education, failed many students, particularly those already most at risk for disrupted learning,” the report says.

Randi Weingarten testifies

Randi Weingarten holds up a sheaf of papers saying: A Plan to Safely Reopen America's Schools and Communities.
Weingarten at the hearing on April 26. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

A paperback copy of “Lessons From the Covid War” sat on a desk next to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, as she testified last week before a House Oversight subcommittee examining outstanding questions about the pandemic, including where the coronavirus originated and why schools stayed closed much longer than they needed to.

For Republicans, the answer has always been simple: Powerful unions, closely aligned with the Democratic Party, listened to members who were fearful of returning to the classroom. Together, the unions and their political allies allegedly influenced agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not to issue guidance that would have made it easier for school districts to bring teachers and students back into the classroom.

“Schools could have — and should have — reopened,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a physician who served in Iraq, said in his opening remarks.

Weingarten had been summoned because publicly released emails show that in 2021, the AFT asked the CDC to make revisions to its reopening guidance that would have raised the threshold for reopening schools. Weingarten maintained that the proposed changes were slight and constituted one of many recommendations that the health agency received.

But the union president failed to shake the perception of undue influence, even as she argued that she was in favor of reopening schools. While Weingarten did become an outspoken supporter of reopening schools, her critics have charged that she did so without ever confronting union members, who continued to insist on staying remote.

Rep. Debbie Lesko at the microphone.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., at a hearing on Capitol Hill in June 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

And they say that throughout late 2020 and much of 2021, the guidelines she promoted included stipulations — such as keeping a distance of 6 feet between students in the classroom — that functionally ensured that schools would remain closed.

“I regret the fear that was there,” Weingarten said, failing to engender much sympathy from the panel’s Republicans.

At one point, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., insisted that Weingarten reveal whether she had a direct telephone number for the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who took over the agency after Joe Biden became president.

Weingarten said she did.

In one contentious moment, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., repeatedly attacked Weingarten, who has two stepchildren, for not being a “biological mother.” Weingarten, who is married to a woman, told Yahoo News after the hearing that the charge was “very homophobic.”

During her two hours of testimony on Capitol Hill, Weingarten also pointed to the Covid Crisis Group report as evidence that attacking teachers’ unions for school closures was unfair.

“The Trump administration refused to help us,” she later told Yahoo News, charging that Republicans were “trying to shift the blame.”

Fauci speaks

Dr. Anthony Fauci at the microphone.

If Weingarten has a rival in her ability to evoke outrage among conservatives, it is doubtless Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former top White House pandemic adviser, who served in both the Trump and Biden administrations before retiring at the end of 2022.

Last week, Fauci defended his handling of the pandemic in a lengthy New York Times interview. “Show me a school that I shut down, and show me a factory that I shut down. Never. I never did,” the respected immunologist said defiantly.

To his critics, such assertions reveal an unwillingness to confront the damage caused by lockdowns and other measures responding to the pandemic. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a perennial opponent of Fauci, has claimed that public health experts peddled “hysteria” rooted in what he calls ideological, rather than scientific, imperatives. "Everything they told us was wrong. It was a lie," Paul said on Fox News last week.

While it is true that Fauci had no power to close schools or enforce lockdowns, he and many other public health experts argued that such measures were necessary, especially in the first, uncertain weeks of the pandemic.

It took several months to ascertain that children were generally not susceptible to the worst symptoms of COVID-19. In other countries, schools reopened safely. In the fall of 2021, so did schools in Republican-led states like Florida and Texas, as well as in New York City.

At the same time, it was becoming clear that what had come to be derisively known as “Zoom school” was failing to ensure the learning that takes place in a physical classroom. Meanwhile, parents who could neither work from home nor hire expensive tutors had to make impossible choices.

Some educators and elected officials insisted on keeping schools closed well into 2021, by which time Fauci had concluded that children should be back in the classroom.

How the legacy of the pandemic will play out in 2024

Gov. Glenn Youngkin takes the microphone in front of an American flag.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin, R-Va., at a rally in Triangle, Va., on Nov. 7, 2022, just before the midterm elections. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Next year’s presidential election could be a “battle for the public memory of the COVID-19 pandemic,” two health policy experts, Jacob Steere-Williams and Gavin Yamey, wrote recently in Time magazine — which they described as a referendum not so much on how to handle future pandemics as on how the coronavirus was handled.

“Both Republican and Democratic nominees will present a vision of the past three years that panders to their respective bases and distorts the history of the pandemic,” they wrote. “Pandemic memories, in other words, are jarringly malleable political weapons.”

In 2021, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin — a virtually unknown Republican running against a Democratic establishment favorite, Terry McAuliffe — focused his campaign on education, seeing a political opening in the deepening frustration of parents who wanted their children back in schools.

In some cases, those parents also didn’t necessarily approve of what they saw on their children’s laptop screens. Youngkin’s campaign was powered by an opposition to “critical race theory,” a graduate-level form of analysis that is not explicitly taught in public schools but that may inform how some educators approach questions of history. One of his advertisements featured a woman who had pushed for her son’s high school to stop teaching “Beloved,” a novel by the Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

He also raised some outrage over transgender children using school bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, stumbled badly when he asserted in a debate, “I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Some observers saw that moment as a turning point in the closely watched gubernatorial contest.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe makes an emphatic point at the microphone.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia at a campaign event in Fairfax, Va., in November 2021. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On the final day of campaigning, McAuliffe held a rally with Weingarten, the union president.

Youngkin’s surprising victory seemed to confirm that schooling could prove a potent issue for Republicans in the years to come. In 2022, governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and others followed Youngkin’s lead, moving to implement book bans and restrictions on how questions of gender and sexuality are discussed. DeSantis, who is likely to challenge Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, has sharply criticized the former president for not firing Fauci, something that would have been exceptionally difficult to do.

Now the Republican Party is reportedly seeking to promote a “Save the Kids” platform, presumably intended to shield children from what conservatives say are dangerous progressive ideas that have found traction in the classroom.

An apology on the order of the one Lauterbach issued in Germany is unlikely to come from the Biden administration, which has celebrated its response to the pandemic and prefers not to relitigate coronavirus-related debates.

Last week’s developments showed how difficult that could turn out to be, even after the pandemic has receded as a daily concern for most Americans.

“Democrats are letting a huge historic advantage on education slip away, because voters don’t see them adequately addressing key concerns like school closures and defending merit programs,” Jonathan Cowan, president and co-founder of the liberal think tank Third Way, told Yahoo News. “If they turn that around while pressing the case on book bans — a major liability for the Trump GOP — they can widen the gap again in 2024.”