Emails recently obtained by the Freedom Foundation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) show high-ranking officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wistfully discussing the possibility of mandating COVID-19 vaccination for schoolchildren.
The emails—which the agency attempted, unsuccessfully, to redact—were provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted as part of the Freedom Foundation’s ongoing work to hold teachers unions accountable for their prominent role in COVID-19 school closures.
In the emails, CDC officials reacted to an Aug. 12, 2021, press release from the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union, in which the NEA endorsed mandatory vaccination and/or regular testing requirements for educators.
The NEA’s endorsement of such mandates for its members came two weeks after the CDC recommended universal masking for school staff and students going into the 2021-22 academic year. Within days of the NEA’s press release, major school districts and left-leaning states began to announce vaccination requirements for public school employees, but not students. While many educators were vaccinated, some resisted such requirements and were disappointed by their union’s decision to side with management on the issue.
Daaiyah Bilal-Threats, senior director of the NEA’s Education Policy and Implementation Center, emailed the press release to officials at the White House, the Department of Education and HHS on Aug. 12, 2021. Shortly thereafter, the email was forwarded by Sherri Berger, the CDC’s deputy director for policy, communications and legislative affairs, to Debra Lubar, the CDC’s director for the Office of Policy, Performance and Evaluation.
In her reply to Berger, Lubar reacted to the NEA’s endorsement of vaccination requirements for educators by writing, “Wish they’d say it for students!”
The first vaccine for 16-year-olds and older was approved in December 2020 and vaccination of 12- to 17-year-olds began in May 2021, but elementary-age children did not start receiving FDA-approved COVID vaccines until November 2021—three months after Lubar’s email.
While the CDC eventually added COVID-19 vaccines to its recommended childhood vaccination schedule in February 2023, it has not recommended vaccination as a requirement for school attendance. Generally, this authority resides at the state and school district level.
To-date, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, the only public school system to mandate student vaccination for COVID-19 is District of Columbia Public Schools, effective for the 2023-24 academic year. Twenty-one states have banned COVID-19 vaccine requirements for schoolchildren.
Disturbingly, CDC officials tried to redact Lubar’s comments, but accidentally neglected to do so before producing the emails to the Freedom Foundation. Redacting text using Adobe software, which the CDC appeared to use, is a two-step process: (1) Highlighting the text to be redacted; and, (2) applying the redaction. Unapplied redactions are highlighted, but the text remains visible.
In this case, Lubar’s, “Wish they’d say it for students!” comment was highlighted for redaction, but the redaction was not applied.
Additionally, federal agencies commonly type over any redacted text a citation to the FOIA exemption they believe justifies the redaction. In this case, “(b)(5)” was typed over Lubar’s unredacted comment. As the CDC explained in the cover letter accompanying the emails,
“FOIA exemption (b)(5) protects inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency. This exemption protects documents that would be covered by any privilege an agency could assert in a civil proceeding. These privileges include, among others, the deliberative process privilege, the attorney client privilege, and the attorney work-product privilege. In this instance, the deliberative process privilege applies.”
In light of the text the CDC intended to redact, one of two conclusions is possible from the claimed deliberative process exemption. Perhaps the CDC really considered imposing COVID-19 vaccination requirements on students and Lubar’s comment was made in the context of such serious deliberations. But unjustified and prolonged school closures were an epic public policy failure, the residual effects of which will be suffered for years to come, and the addition of a highly controversial student vaccine mandate would have made matters worse.
Alternatively—and probably more likely—the CDC was not actively considering such a mandate but did not want to endure the controversy that Lubar’s off-the-cuff remark could precipitate and tried to redact it without legal justification. If this is the case, the CDC does its credibility no favors by ham-handedly attempting to violate open government laws to avoid disclosure of embarrassing comments by its top officials.
Neither possibility reflects well on CDC personnel.