Levin, Warren probe if Trump admin. exerted political pressure on CDC for school openings

Betsy DeVos | Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Two Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday asked the heads of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Education Department for their correspondence with the White House.

The two legislators, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), want to determine if the CDC revised its COVID-19 reopening guidelines for K-12 schools under influence from President Donald Trump’s administration. Levin and Warren specifically want to know if the CDC gave in to political pressure from the president, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in updating its recommendations. 

Earlier this month, Trump — citing expenses and purported impracticality — criticized the CDC’s original guidance on how K-12 institutions should reopen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has killed about 150,000 people and infected more than 4.3 million. He also has threatened to withhold federal funding from public schools if they do not hold in-person reopenings.

 

Last week, the CDC published additional guidance to interpret the original recommendations, framed as “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.” The focus is now on helping teachers and administrators reopen as close to normally as possible.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said last week that it’s “critically important” for schools to reopen.

In their letter to the agencies, Levin and Warren wrote that Trump, Pence and DeVos have “created confusion” and “needlessly polarized” efforts by pressuring schools to resume traditional operations. 

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30., 2019 | Andrew Roth

“Local education leaders, and the public at large, need to know the extent to which guidance issued by your agencies may have been influenced by political pressure in order to understand whether it can be treated as an objective, expert source for their own decision making,” Levin and Warren wrote to DeVos and Redfield.

Levin vice-chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, while Warren is a member of the Senate’s Health, Education and Pensions Committee (HELP). 

They have asked for a response to their letter by Aug. 11. 

Meanwhile, in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has released her plan for K-12 schools with flexibility for local districts to opt for in-person or online learning or a combination for the 2020-21 school year. However, if cases spike in regions, school buildings will not be permitted to open for classes.

The state House last week approved Republicans’ “Return to Learn”  bill package, which would require that Michigan K-5 students have in-person classes. 

In-person learning required for K-5 students under GOP plan passed by the House

The package drew criticism from state House Democrats, who said the provision allowing privatization of some education services was part of the “DeVos agenda.” But state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said the legislation will “treat teachers like the essential workers that they are and help them give every child the opportunity to return to school safely this fall.”

If Whitmer signs the bills, which is unlikely, that would impact school districts that already plan to virtually conduct all learning, like Lansing Public Schools. Under the plan, schools who choose to go completely online would be at risk of losing state funding, which is in line with the Trump administration’s position.