On Jan. 21, President Biden's first full day in office, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki began her briefing with this: "When the president asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room." Now, the administration's position on opening schools shut by COVID lockdowns is testing that pledge.
Psaki's problem started on Feb. 3, when the White House COVID Response Team held a teleconference for the press. Among the group was Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the president's new choice to head the Centers for Disease Control. A reporter asked Walensky about the CDC's priorities for vaccination, and in particular whether "the federal government would be working more closely with states to kind of get more vaccinations to teachers, in particular, so that schools can reopen in the fall."
Walensky said that a group inside the CDC, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, had created a priority list for those receiving vaccinations. In December, the committee included teachers in what was called the 1b category, meaning they would be among those who should be next in line. But that wasn't law -- it was the CDC's guidance for states to follow, or not to follow.
"We've left that to the states to manage," Walensky explained, "in terms of recognizing the prioritization of ACIP, but also manage at their own local level."
And then: "That said, I want to be very clear about schools, which is: Yes, ACIP has put teachers in the 1b category, the category of essential workers. But I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely. So while we are implementing the criteria of the Advisory Committee and of the state and local guidances to get vaccination across these eligible communities, I would also say that safe reopening of schools is not -- that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools."
There it was: The head of the CDC frankly stating that the science shows schools can safely reopen, and that the reopening of the schools does not depend on vaccinating teachers. Given the current debate, in which teachers unions, the longtime allies and benefactors of Democratic politicians from Joe Biden on down, are demanding that schools remain closed and that teachers be vaccinated before any reopening can occur, Walensky's statement was big news. Would Democratic officeholders listen to the science and break with the unions?
It was such big news that the White House immediately ran away from it. At the next day's briefing, on Feb. 4, a reporter asked press secretary Psaki: "Yesterday the head of the CDC, as you know, said that it was safe to reopen schools without vaccinating teachers. You said that the White House was still waiting to -- waiting for the official guidance before making a final determination. Why isn't what the director of the CDC says -- why isn't that enough?"
Psaki said there was a CDC guidance process going on that hadn't been completed. And she said that the president wants schools to reopen. And he wants to rely on medical experts in making decisions. And then she came to Dr. Walensky: "So we're just not -- she -- the -- Dr. Walensky spoke in her personal capacity. Obviously, she's the head of the CDC, but we're going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country."
So there it was: Dr. Walensky was speaking in her personal capacity. She is director of the CDC, she is part of the White House COVID Response Team, and she was speaking on a White House teleconference. But never mind -- she was speaking in her personal capacity.
Now, the White House can say to the teachers unions: Don't worry. Dr. Walensky didn't really mean it. She was just speaking for herself. We're not going to cross you and announce that schools should open. You're still in charge. And as for Psaki's pledge to bring "truth and transparency" back to the briefing room? Well, perhaps she was just speaking in her personal capacity.
This content originally appeared on the Washington Examiner at washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/byron-yorks-daily-memo-when-the-white-house-cant-handle-the-truth.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.