I asked AFT President Randi Weingarten to respond to David Brooks’s claim that “the teachers’ unions” were to blame for long school closures during the pandemic, which caused grievous harm to students.

She answered with a resounding “NO” and sent me the following timeline. If I had NEA President Becky Pringle’s personal email, I would have asked her the same question. Being that it’s Christmas holidays, it will be several days before I can reach her. I will try.

Meanwhile, Randi sent this comprehensive rebuttal of Brooks’ allegations.

Since the first months of the pandemic, the American Federation of Teachers has worked with parents and communities to safely reopen schools and other institutions vital to the nation’s social and economic health.

Even before COVID-19, educators knew that remote education, relentlessly championed and invested in (https://www.edweek.org/technology/betsy-devos-backtracks-on-remote-learning-options-she-had-championed/2020/07) by then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, was only ever a supplement, not a substitute, for in-person learning. Remote learning can serve as a backstop during a public health emergency, but only if we address equity issues, including broadband accessibility, services and support. In-person learning is a prerequisite to fostering the deep social and emotional ties and close relationships with educators that are essential to kids’ development.

Throughout the pandemic, AFT members have consistently (https://www.aft.org/press-release/new-data-shows-majority-educators-willing-go-back-school-if-key-safety) expressed (https://www.aft.org/press-release/new-poll-shows-americas-teachers-want-return-classrooms-amid-growing) support (https://www.aft.org/press-release/americas-educators-are-vaccinated-and-back-person-poll) for in-person instruction with safety protocols in place. Those protocols served as the pathway, not the barrier, to returning to classrooms. The union held (https://www.aft.org/news/latest-town-hall-dives-afts-reopen-plan) numerous (https://www.aft.org/news/member-town-hall-showcases-back-school-all-campaign)town halls (https://www.aft.org/news/words-wisdom-mark-aft-back-school-town-hall) on the crucial importance of face-to-face instruction.

Since April 2020, the AFT has published four proposals for safely reopening schools and addressing the challenges of the pandemic.1 In the fall of 2021, the AFT invested $5 million in 28 states (https://www.aft.org/press-release/major-speech-randi-weingarten-reimagines-public-education-nation-emerges) to get kids back in classrooms, through billboard and radio ads encouraging reopening as well as health fairs and vaccination clinics.

At the same time, parents in major cities often elicited (https://www.chalkbeat.org/2021/2/18/22289735/parents-polls-schools-opening-remote) a strong preference (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/08/world/most-families-of-color-have-chosen-remote-learning-over-an-in-person-return-to-nyc-schools.html?referringSource=articleShare) for remote learning. Charter schools were more likely (https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2022-03-15/how-traditional-public-private-and-charter-schools-responded-to-the-pandemic) than other public schools to shift to remote learning, and stay remote, and private schools were just 4 percentage points more likely than public schools to stay open. In October 2020, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz said (https://www.chalkbeat.org/2020/10/14/21516486/city-charter-schools-take-reopening-slow-similar-roadblocks-neighboring-school-districts), “The best way for us to protect teaching and learning was to stay remote and have a level of predictability.”

After a year of failed efforts under President Donald Trump, the Biden administration invested in and successfully reopened schools, with 98 percent open in January 2022 (https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/fact-sheet-one-year-biden-harris-administration-us-department-education-has-helped-schools-safely-reopen-and-meet-students%25E2%2580%2599-needs), compared with 46 percent a year earlier. Teachers across the country advocated for the American Rescue Plan, which included $126 billion for public K-12 schools and funding specifically to address learning recovery.

Tale of the tape

On Feb. 4, 2020, as Trump downplayed COVID-19’s seriousness (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/20/what-trump-did-about-coronavirus-february/), the union held a press conference (https://www.afacwa.org/aft_afa_join_coronavirus_prevention) with Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson and others to push for a coordinated response to the emerging pandemic.

In April 2020, the AFT launched its landmark plan (https://www.aft.org/press-release/aft-launches-landmark-plan-safely-reopen-americas-schools-and-communities)to safely reopen America’s schools and communities—months before many other groups, including the federal government. In July of that year, the AFT launched its detailed follow-up plan (https://www.aft.org/press-release/aft-launches-landmark-plan-safely-reopen-americas-schools-and-communities)to safely reopen school buildings.

On April 24, AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote an op-ed (https://thehill.com/opinion/education/494521-what-comes-next-for-public-schooling/) with former Education Secretary John King calling out the shortcomings of remote education and pushing for multi-week summer school to deal with learning loss.

In May 2020, Weingarten was appointed to (https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/amid-ongoing-covid-19-pandemic-governor-cuomo-announces-members-reimagine-education-advisory) New York state’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council, which was charged with safely reopening and reinventing schools.

In July 2020, the union joined (https://www.aft.org/press-release/pediatricians-educators-and-superintendents-urge-safe-return-school-fall) with the National Education Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the School Superintendents Association to commit to doing everything possible to safely resume in-person schooling at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

In November 2020, the AFT launched a new blueprint (https://thehill.com/opinion/education/528004-a-blueprint-to-safely-open-schools/) to reopen schools.

In January 2021, Weingarten joined Rajiv Shah of the Rockefeller Foundation to write an op-ed saying that schools could reopen (https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/01/24/re-opening-schools-precautions-and-testing-column/6661567002/) with comprehensive testing, before the vaccine was widely available. In February 2021, Weingarten reiterated her position (https://www.wgbh.org/news/education/2021/02/05/teachers-union-president-weingarten-vaccinations-arent-precondition-for-school-reopening-but-need-to-be-priority) that vaccinations are a priority, but not a prerequisite, for in-person learning.

In February 2021, the New York Times published a profile (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/08/us/schools-reopening-teachers-unions.html) titled “The Union Leader Who Says She Can Get Teachers Back in School.” It reported that Weingarten was calling for schools to reopen, in person, as soon as possible.

Later that month, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Weingarten issued a clarion call (https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/full-interview-teacher-union-pres-there-s-no-perfect-solution-to-reopening-schools-101356613515?cid=sm_npd_nn_tw_mtp) for in-person learning, arguing that if the NFL could resume in-person football games, schools could resume in-person classes.