Lawmakers debate who to blame for COVID school closures: Teachers unions or Trump?

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House members spent a Tuesday hearing debating who to blame for school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with Republicans deriding the influence of teacher’s unions and Democrats blasting the Trump administration.

During the hearing, titled “The Consequences of School Closures: Intended and Unintended,” members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic agreed that school closures had devastating effects on children and students.

But there was little common ground on who to blame for that damage.

Republicans raised concerns outside groups such as teachers unions had too much input in the guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out regarding school closures that ultimately led to students learning from home for an extended period of time. 

“We must strive to be prepared to never let this happen again. Our children have paid the price and are continuing to pay the price,” Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said in his opening remarks. 

“Let’s make sure that those involved with policy decisions were not motivated in some way to put themselves above our children and their futures.”

Before the hearing began, Wenstrup announced he sent letters to the CDC, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and 14 other non-governmental groups asking them to detail their roles or communications with the CDC regarding guidance on school closures. 

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) said the panel was just getting started in its efforts to determine what happened around school closures,

“When we see something that doesn’t look like it’s not right, it usually is follow the money and you can figure out exactly why this stuff happened so I’m excited about looking into this and finding out exactly what drove all of this, where that money went and who made these decisions,” he said.

Democrats focused on the progress in school reopenings since President Biden took office and said the reasoning for the delay in reopening schools was due to former President Trump’s rhetoric and policies during the pandemic. 

“I’ve been horrified by what this plague and the nation’s catastrophically ineffectual response to it have done to learning and education among young people,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said.

“But was it the fault of the governors, Republican and Democratic, who closed the schools in the middle of this emergency? The superintendent struggling to contain this out of control pandemic? […] Or would it be the fault of the president who let the plague run loose and left the nation without a unified serious plan for managing the crisis?”

During the pandemic, Trump threatened to take away funding for schools that did not reopen their doors. However, when he left office many schools were still teaching students virtually.

“The Trump administration’s early failures resulted in the prolonged suspension of in-person learning so much so that when January 2021 rolled around, less than half of America schools were open for full-time in-person learning,” Ranking Member Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) said. 

Research has shown the COVID-19 school shutdowns have had numerous consequences for students, such as substantial learning loss, an increase in youth suicides and an increase in childhood abuse. 

Disagreements also arose over why the U.S. waited longer than many other countries in finally allowing children to go back to in person learning.

“I would also caution against this notion of always comparing what we did in the U.S. against what they did in Europe to suggest how somehow or another that it should have been the same,” Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) said during the hearing. The “United States is one country, Europe is 44 nations. So let’s be real careful about how we compare apples to apples or oranges to oranges and make sure that we’re talking about the same thing here.”

Author and investigative journalist David Zweig, a witness invited by Republicans, pushed back on Mfume.

“With all due respect to the other congressmember, I think it’s entirely appropriate to look at what happened in Europe and elsewhere. Those are human beings. They’re children, They’re in schools. […] That is real evidence in front of us and I think we’re talking about the difference between looking at models, looking at projections over empirical data,” Zweig said.

“And I think that’s incredibly important and it’s one of the things that I’ve been studying and been so fascinated by is this sort of very, very myopic American-centric idea that nothing else was happening outside of our bubble,” he added. 

Regardless of disagreements about the timing of school reopenings and who was at fault, both sides agreed preparations need to be made so it never happens again. 

“Are schools an essential service? Yes. The answer, my answer is yes. And so it boggles my mind that we had grocery stores open, Walmart open and all these other businesses deemed essential services that were open yet we closed schools,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said.

Tags Brad Wenstrup COVID-19 pandemic learning loss pandemic school closures Raul Ruiz

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