The U.S. House of Representatives passed a second COVID-19 relief package—the HEROES Act—on May 15. At the end of last week, however, without taking up the HEROES Act, the Senate began a two week recess. Congressional consideration of assistance for states and local school districts can’t possibly happen until the third week of July, and yet the school year in most places is supposed to get underway in mid-August.
Senator Mitch McConnell, has been in no hurry to bring the bill up for a vote in the U.S. Senate despite documentation from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Education Association that a COVID-19 recession is ravaging state budgets. McConnell has said he wants to wait and see if more federal relief is really necessary. One wonders if he grasps or cares about the needs of America’s schoolteachers, children, and families.
In U.S. public schools 3.2 million teachers educate over 50 million children and adolescents. Last Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a column from New Jersey schoolteacher and school finance expert Mark Weber, who worries about very real practical concerns for public school teachers themselves: “Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day… Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day… The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day… School staff do not generally have isolated spaces in their workplaces where they can stay when not working with children… School buses cannot easily accommodate social distancing, nor can they easily adjust to accommodate staggered school sessions… Like every other workforce, school staff have many people who have preconditions that make them susceptible to becoming critically ill when exposed to COVID-19… Unsupervised adolescents cannot be expected to socially distance outside of the school day if schools are reopened…” Weber’s list continues but even the concerns quoted here involve a complex and difficult set of choices.
Despite these challenges, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended last week that schools reopen: “As pediatricians, many of us have recognized already the impact that having schools closed even for a couple of months had on children. At the same time, a lot of us are parents. We experienced our own kids doing online learning. There really wasn’t a lot of learning happening. Now we’re seeing studies documenting this. Kids being home led to increases in behavioral health problems. There were reports of increased rates of abuse.” The doctors argue that children are less likely to spread the coronavirus than adults and that the danger having schools closed is greater than the danger of viral spread.
The NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg describes the desperate issues of parents who cannot plan for fall. Will schools open? Will children be in school for some part of each day or some days each week? “With expanded unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July, many parents will have no choice but to return to work by September. Even for parents who can work from home, home schooling is often a crushing burden that’s destroying careers, mental health and family relationships… Yet the nighmarish withdrawal of the key social support underlying modern parenthood is being presented as a fait accompli, rather than a worst-case scenario that government is mobilizing to prevent.”
Certainly nobody except the purveyors of digital learning platforms believes that online schooling is better for children than being in classrooms with their teachers and their peers. Lots of what kids learn every day involves socialization.
For school district staff, planning for the upcoming school year involves not only figuring out how to ensure safety by reconfiguring and cleaning classrooms but also hiring essential staff—enough teachers to keep classes small, for example. These considerations rest on available funding, and nobody knows what resources school districts will have.
If you sift through recent press about the challenges facing school leaders when they undertake to shape a new school year in the midst of a pandemic, you come across all sorts of articles that detail the very real implications of the recessionary budget collapse across the states. For example, EdSource‘s John Fensterwald reports on the budget just passed in California: “Prevailing in negotiations with Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature passed a state budget that will let K-12 schools spend at the same level in 2020-21 as this year—avoiding the billions in cuts that Newsom had proposed. But there’s a catch. Spending won’t equate to funding. School and community college districts will have to front $11 billion they would normally get from the state in exchange for IOUs. Districts won’t be paid back until 2021-2022.” School districts have permission to spend money the state will reimburse next year, but right now school districts would have to cover their costs by dipping into their financial reserves (assuming they have sizeable reserves) or borrowing.
It is clear that when Congress returns in the third week of July, any debate about additional financial relief for public schools will be fraught with partisan contention. Last week, the Trump administration suddenly began to admit there exists a state budget crisis affecting public schools, but the admission carries a hidden agenda. On July 2, Education Week‘s Evie Blad reported: “The Trump administration may push to include targeted funding to help schools re-open in the next federal coronavirus relief package, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at a White House press conference Thursday. Hours after he spoke, Democratic lawmakers and teachers unions slammed the White House’s reported plans to ask Congress to earmark money in that bill for scholarships that will allow families to send their children to private schools… While some education groups expressed hope at the mention of more school funding, another story about the White House wish list for the next relief package sparked some harsh reactions from opponents of President Donald Trump’s education agenda. Trump plans ask for a ‘one-time, emergency appropriation’ to fund state scholarship grants that would allow students to attend private schools. ‘The White House is seeking to have 10 percent of the amount that Congress approves for state and local educational agencies set aside for the grants.’ the report said. ‘Trump will also seek approval of $5 billion in federal tax credits for businesses and individuals who donate to the scholarship programs.’ The $5 billion plan is one championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that would provide federal tax credits to donors in states that opt into the Education Freedom Scholarship proposal.”
On June 30, on behalf of the Senate Democratic minority, Senators Patty Murray and Chuck Schumer introduced their own Senate version of a COVID-19 relief bill that would allocate $430 billion for child care and public education and at the same time, prevent Secretary DeVos from diverting funds to private schools and schemes to advance her school privatization agenda. The future of Murray and Schumer’s bill in the Republican dominated U.S. Senate remains uncertain.
In the meantime, local school leaders are struggling to develop plans for the 2020-2021 school year as the number of COVID-19 cases grows across many states and as education leaders have no idea whether Congress will pass urgently needed fiscal relief to help them cope with added expenses due to the pandemic and the state budget collapse caused by pandemic-driven business closures.
Michelle Goldberg interviews the President of the American Federation of Teachers: “Randi Weingarten… described school districts as ‘immobilized’ by lack of funding… Weingarten tells me that if the Senate doesn’t pass the HEROES Act… she thinks many schools, including those in New York City, won’t open at all in September. To open safely, schools are going to need much more money to buy protective equipment like gloves and masks, retrofit buildings and hire more teachers and nurses. Instead, the economic crisis is forcing budget cuts. ‘What are states going to do? What are localities going to do?… And if we don’t get the money, we’re on remote.'”