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During the early COVID-19 pandemic, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten advocated for schools to reopen for in-person learning, provided they use safety precautions.
She often referred to a reopening plan the union released in April 2020. It prioritized maintaining physical distance between people, establishing COVID-19 testing protocols and involving school staff and parents in decisions about reopening.
Weingarten criticized Trump administration officials’ calls to reopen schools fully without a plan or safety measures in 2020, but it’s misleading to suggest that she didn’t want to pursue reopening schools at all.
As educators, parents and students struggled through the early COVID-19 pandemic to balance learning with health safety rules, teachers union president Randi Weingarten grappled, too.
As president of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten represented 1.7 million teachers and school-related personnel during federal, state and local policy discussions about how to effectively educate kids during a global crisis.
When she testified April 26 before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Weingarten faced new questions about the input her union provided during that critical time to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We’re investigating the decision-making process behind school closures and the effects it had so that we can do better in the future," subcommittee chair U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said.
When Weingarten emerged from the contentious hearing, she tweeted her take on the discussion: "Republicans on the House Covid subcommittee want you to think I wanted to keep schools closed. Here’s what I actually said… over & over again," she wrote, attaching a video with sound bites in which she repeatedly stated her interest in schools returning to in-person learning.
Republicans on the House Covid subcommittee want you to think I wanted to keep schools closed. Here’s what I actually said… over & over again. pic.twitter.com/TTWuYgC5nN— Randi Weingarten 🇺🇦🇺🇸💪🏿👩🎓 (@rweingarten) April 26, 2023
But her tweet was amended with "community notes," a Twitter feature that allows users with differing views to add comments that other Twitter users decide is "helpful" to the discussion.
"Weingarten is misrepresenting her prior positions," the note said. "She called attempts to reopen schools in the fall of 2020 ‘Reckless, callous, cruel.’" The note linked to stories from The Guardian, EdWeek and The New York Times as well as a website called Return to Learn Tracker, which collected data on in-person and remote instruction.
We looked closely at Weingarten’s statements, along with news reports, op-eds, transcripts and video clips of her remarks, and we found that, taken in isolation, neither Weingarten nor the Twitter note represented the full picture of Weingarten’s efforts and statements at the time.
Weingarten advocated for tailored approaches that prioritized safety needs of individual districts, educators and students but stopped short of endorsing a full return to in-person learning all across the country. The AFT’s reopening plan, first released in April 2020, prioritized maintaining physical distance between people, establishing COVID-19 testing protocols and involving school staff and parents in these decisions. It also called for federal aid to help schools prepare.
Here’s a fuller look at some of the comments Weingarten and the community note highlighted, with context. We have bolded portions of the statements that were cited in the tweet, video and community note:
This characterization omits key context. It referred to a July 17, 2020, article in The Guardian headlined, "‘Reckless, callous, cruel’: teachers’ chief denounces Trump plan to reopen schools."
Without providing a plan for how schools could safely reopen, President Donald Trump and administration officials demanded in July 2020 that schools reopen and threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that didn’t. Weingarten criticized those actions, but it’s misleading to suggest that she didn’t want to pursue reopening schools at all.
"It’s as if Trump and (Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos want to create chaos and want to jeopardize reopening," Weingarten told The Guardian. "There’s no other reason why they would be this reckless, this callous, this cruel."
The Guardian article said Weingarten and the AFT had done "months of work" to find ways to safely get teachers back to in-person instruction at least part-time.
This came from Weingarten’s July 21, 2020, appearance on C-SPAN’s "Washington Journal" program in which Weingarten answered viewers’ questions about reopening schools. A caller asked Weingarten why teachers couldn’t go into the classroom and teach. She responded:
"The point I’m trying to make to you, sir, is that teachers are essential workers. And they have been working. And they have been engaging kids all year long. They changed their teaching practices in a nanosecond. And, frankly, the polling I’ve seen in the last few days — just like what has happened with my members — is that, because of the recklessness of Trump and DeVos and McConnell, it has switched to 70% or so of parents don’t want to send their kids to places that are dangerous. We want schools to reopen, we want them to reopen safely. We’ve been working on it since April and, ultimately, I’d love to work with you in trying to figure out how to reopen schools safely as opposed to any of the name calling."
When New York City schools closed to in-person learning in November 2020, Weingarten appeared on "The Story with Martha MacCallum" on Fox News. City residents had surpassed a 3% COVID-19 test positivity threshold, which triggered the school closures.
On Nov. 19, 2020, MacCallum asked Weingarten to explain why the schools were closing when schools in other countries had remained open during COVID-19 spikes. Here’s part of that exchange:
Weingarten: "What they did in Europe and what they did in New Zealand is that they had national leadership that closed — that did masks — that actually closed the bars, that did some of those things, including the stimulus —"
MacCallum, interrupting: "Two totally separate things."
Weingarten: "That’s what we need to do."
MacCallum: "Given all that, they still say that kids are safer in school."
Weingarten: "No, they’re connected, Martha."
MacCallum: "The number’s rising, but the kids are safer in school. Those are the two realities from what we’re hearing from all these scientists."
Weingarten: "Listen, I agree with you. We’ve been trying to get kids back into school throughout the country, and we worked with New York City to do it, but we have to get community spread down now."
This came from NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Feb. 21, 2021. Weingarten told journalist Chuck Todd that teachers in her union wanted schools to reopen. Todd asked her about what appeared to be a discrepancy between what some local unions were requesting and what Weingarten suggested was her stance — that not everyone had to be vaccinated to return to in-person instruction if there were other strategies in place to stem spread. In her response, she said:
"I think that what we need to do is, we have to meet fear with facts, which is what we’re trying to do. … What we’ve learned in our polling and also in our experience is that when people are actually in school with the protocols in place, they trust it more. And then you just have to educate people in terms of this way. Seventy-one percent of our members are fearful that they’ll bring COVID home. Look, we’ve had 500,000 deaths and we’ve had such grim realities here, but the teachers of this country understand that in-person education is really important. And so, ultimately, let’s do the kind of strategies we need. And the CDC, I watched the CDC director on your show last week. They’re obvious what they are now. We have to just get them implemented."
During a May 14, 2021, appearance on MSNBC, Weingarten discussed new mask guidance released by the CDC, which said that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 did not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most settings.
"I think if you see the kind of arc of where we see the science and the trust going — the science is saying that kids 12 to 15 are safe to get vaccines. The vaccines have been really big game changers. And what we’re learning is that they not only keep you safe from getting seriously ill, but they also are very effective in stopping transmission. So what we said yesterday morning, given all the evidence that we have seen, is that it’s full speed ahead for the fall.
"Now, does it mean it’s totally risk-free? Of course not. And will there have to be some people who have accommodations still? Of course. And obviously, as Dr. Fauci just said, younger kids are not going to have vaccines yet. But we think that this … we’re embracing this new guidance about masks."
PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Randi Weingarten Tweet, April 26, 2023
The Guardian, 'Reckless, callous, cruel': teachers' chief denounces Trump plan to reopen schools, July 17, 2020
The Guardian, Betsy DeVos insists all US children should be in school this fall, July 13, 2020
The New York Times, As More Teachers’ Unions Push for Remote Schooling, Parents Worry. So Do Democrats, Jan. 8, 2022
Return to Learn Tracker, accessed May 2, 2023
EducationWeek, How Teachers’ Unions Are Influencing Decisions on School Reopenings, Dec. 2, 2020
Washington Journal on C-SPAN, Randi Weingarten on Reopening Schools Amid Pandemic, July 21, 2020
MSNBC, Randi Weingarten pushes to reopen schools safely in the fall, May 14, 2021
NBC News, Meet The Press Broadcast (Full) - February 21st, 2021 | Meet The Press | NBC News, Feb. 21, 2021
The New York Times, ‘The Most Dangerous Person in the World Is Randi Weingarten,’ April 28, 2023
The American Federation of Teachers, Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities, April 29, 2020
The American Federation of Teachers, Three Crises and an Election: The Outlook of AFT Members, June 2020
NBC News, NYC schools to close as city reaches 3 percent test positivity threshold, Nov. 18, 2020
Internet Archive, Fox News "The Story with Martha MacCallum" clip, Nov. 19, 2020
The New York Times, The Union Leader Who Says She Can Get Teachers Back in Schools, Feb. 8, 2021
USA Today, With robust testing, we can open schools this spring before the vaccine is widely available, Jan. 24, 2021
The American Federation of Teachers, New Poll Shows America’s Teachers Want to Return to Classrooms amid Growing Confidence in Safety Guardrails, Feb. 16, 2021
Axios, Union head won’t say whom teachers should get priority over for COVID vaccine, Feb. 21, 2021
The Washington Post, Classes canceled for a second day after Chicago teachers vote to defy in-person learning order, Jan. 5, 2022
EdSource, Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten testifies before Congress on Covid-19 school closures, April 26, 2023
Yahoo News, 'Very homophobic': Teachers' union leader Randi Weingarten says House hearing crossed the line, May 1, 2023
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Accountability, The Consequences of School Closures, Part 2: The President of the American Federation of Teachers, Ms. Randi Weingarten, April 26, 2023