Before taking office, President Joe Biden promised that he would “listen to scientists and heed their advice” regarding the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Biden promised that he would have American schools reopened and kids back in their seats within his first one hundred days in office.
And while we should naturally be skeptical about promises made by politicians on the campaign trail, President Biden’s choice of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services provides even more reason to doubt his commitment to a science-based and rational approach to COVID-19.
Especially when it comes to re-opening schools.
Xavier Becerra is a politician, through and through. Receiving his California law license in 1985, Becerra almost immediately found his way to the State Capitol in Sacramento. After stints as an administrative assistant and deputy attorney general, Becerra secured his first elected office in 1990. From the California State Assembly, he quickly ascended to the United States Congress, where he served as a member of the House of Representatives for fourteen years. Only in 2016 did he return to California and begin to practice law, after a twenty-seven-year gap.
If there is one thing we know about politicians; it is that they know how to pay back the people responsible for putting them into office. We can expect Becerra to be no different regarding school re-openings if he becomes the Health Secretary.
As recently pointed out by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), Becerra accepted over $50,000 in political donations from several powerful California public teachers’ unions in recent years. Specifically: $29,200 from the California Teachers Association (CTA) from 2017-2018, and $22,400 from the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) from 2018-2019.
These are the very same unions currently pressuring Governor Newsom to keep California schools closed and kids at home staring vacantly at computer screens. In a recent letter, E. Toby Boyd, head of the CTA, demanded that California teachers be 100% vaccinated before they return to the classroom, insisting that “the full effect of the vaccine on infection and transmission is not yet clear.” But even San Francisco recognizes the untenable and unrealistic nature of such a demand.
Recently, the San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, with support from Mayor London Breed, sued the city’s own school district in an attempt to get schools to reopen. According to Herrera, “[m]ore than 54,000 San Francisco schoolchildren are suffering. They are being turned into Zoom-bies by online school. Enough is enough.”
Union efforts to keep schools closed continue in spite of President Biden’s own Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, reporting that “schools can safely reopen” and “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
Doubtless, the CTA and CFT leaders believe they will have an ally in their continued efforts to keep California students locked in their homes if Becerra ascends to his new position of power. After all, Becerra has absolutely no background in medical science or healthcare policy, at the state or federal level. As pointed out by one of Sen. Cotton’s aides, “Xavier Becerra’s only healthcare experience is enforcing California’s lockdowns that shuttered playgrounds, crushed small businesses, and kept schools closed.”
Instead, Becerra’s appointment appears to be no more than a traditional political promotion based on his outspoken advocacy for the Affordable Care Act. Even the President made his intentions in selecting Becerra for the post clear: “No matter what happens in the Supreme Court he’ll lead our efforts to build on the Affordable Care Act.”
While the President giddily plans for an expansion of Obamacare via tele-prompter, schools in California and across the United States remain shuttered. As a result, children in the most developmentally important periods of life continue to suffer. Even amongst older students, troubling mental health issues like substance abuse and suicidal ideations due to the continuing lockdowns are on the rise.
With the choice of beholden politicians like Xavier Becerra to fill important new health services roles in the midst of a pandemic, the Biden administration demonstrates not only the unlikely possibility that school re-opening policies will be based on sound science, but the utter unseriousness of any policies likely to emanate from Becerra’s HHS department.
Tim Snowball is a litigator at Freedom Foundation, a public interest organization focused on vindicating the rights of public sector workers.