All Commentary
Friday, June 4, 2021

A Union Boss Who Fought To Keep Schools Closed For Over a Year Is Now Changing Her Tune. Here’s Why.

Randi Weingarten’s refusal to recognize science showing it was safe to reopen schools has been devastating for children.

Image Credit: Flickr-US Department of Education | CC BY 2.0 (

Randi Weingarten is the president of the country’s second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers. And, over the past few weeks, she has been going on what one could only call a media tour, arguing that students should have in-person instruction in the fall.

Weingarten has not only tweeted about this numerous times over the past few weeks, but she also recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic advocating for schools to open in the fall, and she has appeared on cable news channels ranging from MSNBC to Fox to share the same message.

This newfound enthusiasm for bringing kids back to school, however, is a 180-degree turn from where she — along with other teachers unions around the country — were for the entirety of the pandemic. In fact, it would not be an understatement to say that teachers unions in general, and Weingarten in particular, have fought tooth-and-nail to keep kids online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July of 2020, Weingarten threatened a strike and proclaimed “nothing is off the table” if school districts decided to reopen. In August of 2020, she explained that online learning would have to continue until “we can really decrease (coronavirus) community spread throughout the United States.” A working paper of more than 10,000 school districts’ reopenings near the middle of the school year also showed that it was the strength of teachers unions and other types of partisan politics in a given district — not the prevalence of COVID-19 — that best predicted continuous school closures.

Why Did Weingarten Suddenly Flip?

Unfortunately, her shift on school reopenings was most likely due to cold political calculations. This should come as no surprise, as that seems to be the origin of all her other stances throughout the pandemic, too. Up until this point, it was always in her interest to filibuster school reopenings because accruing benefits for her union members — even if it meant exploiting a crisis — was her job.

Up until this point, it was always in her interest to filibuster school reopenings because accruing benefits for her union members — even if it meant exploiting a crisis — was her job.

But, as the current school year came to a close, it became increasingly clear that the pandemic would essentially be over by the time fall rolls around and that public pressure to reopen schools would be irresistible. Reopening was a foregone conclusion, so changing course and advocating school reopenings became a risk-free and consequence-free activity for Weingarten. Because of this, it wouldn’t be overly cynical to suspect that Weingarten’s media tour is nothing more than a PR ploy in an effort to rehabilitate the image of teachers unions.

The Truth About School Closures

Despite the attempt of Weingarten to change the narrative with her recent media tour, the record is absolutely clear: schools could have opened a long time ago if it weren’t for Weingarten’s political games.

We know this because study after study told us it was safe to reopen schools, even going back to the beginning of the academic year. Then, later, the American Enterprise Institute confirmed this with a review of 130 studies on school reopenings.

“Attending school does not increase risk to children,” the researchers concluded, noting that when schools are open, COVID-19 rates mirror that of the community the school is located in.

Weingarten’s refusal to heed the actual science on this issue has been devastating for children — both educationally and emotionally.

Due to school closures, up to 3 million children have been missing from school since March 2020. ABC News also reports that enrollment in Kindergartens declined in Minneapolis by 16 percent, Los Angeles by 14 percent, and Colorado by nine percent.

Among high school students, 50 percent say that they are learning either somewhat or much less during online school. Staying motivated to learn and having adequate communication with their teachers were also said to be two of the biggest barriers to effective learning.

These devastating outcomes could have been mitigated with in-person learning because it would have made sure these students were not nearly as isolated as they were.

When it comes to mental health, the picture is dire as well. The CDC reports that between April and October of 2020, mental health-related emergency room visits increased by 24 percent for children between 5 and 11, and 31 percent for kids between 12 and 17. And, in Clark County, Nevada, a dramatic increase in student suicides led to the county reopening schools. School administrators acknowledged there were 18 suicides over the period of nine months — which was double the nine of the entire previous year. These devastating outcomes could have been mitigated with in-person learning because it would have made sure these students were not nearly as isolated as they were.

Teachers Unions Do Not Act in the Interests Of Children

The function of public sector unions has often been to protect their members at the expense of the larger community (including non-member workers in the same trade). While this is quite clear to many left-leaning people when it comes to police unions, it has been clearly demonstrated in the case of teachers unions as well. It is for this reason Weingarten can continually fight to keep schools closed despite the harm it is doing to schoolchildren.

In his book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, the famed economist Thomas Sowell wrote:

“[Teachers unions’] millions of members and millions of dollars in political campaign contributions ensure that there will be government officials — from the local to the national level — responsive to the teachers unions’ agenda (…) Much lofty rhetoric has been deployed by teachers unions in their public relations campaigns to promote their own interests, as if they were promoting the interests of schoolchildren. But the late Albert Shanker, head of the United Federation of Teachers, was honest enough to state the plain fact: ‘When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.’”

Sowell is pointing out two key things: that teachers unions have tremendous influence over certain government officials, and that the interests of the union often diverge from those of children.

The painful manifestation of both of Sowell’s observations over the past year should serve as a lesson going forward: as long as the traditional public school system is dominated by the unions, the longer our youth will suffer.

Randi Weingarten can parade through the media as a champion of children all she likes, but American parents would be correct to see right through it.

  • Jack Elbaum was a Hazlitt Writing Fellow at FEE and is a junior at George Washington University. His writing has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The New York Post, and the Washington Examiner. You can contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Jack_Elbaum.