Should public schools reopen this fall? Is there a single plan that will work everyplace? Can school districts make social distancing workable with some kind of hybrid plan in which children are sometimes in class personally and sometimes online? Should schooling go online full-time for a whole semester or a whole school year? Whose interests matter when it comes to reopening? Should economic and political demands trump everything? What about safety? Do parents’ needs matter? And what about the well-being of children and adolescents themselves?
If you are not totally dispirited by President Trump’s bizarre and ugly July 4th allegation that, “against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” I urge you to read Jeff Bryant’s excellent new summary of the dilemma about reopening public schools next month in the middle of the pandemic. Bryant examines the arguments of people of both political parties. Then, with citations to important research, Bryant reminds readers about years of society’s failure to fund public schools and the consequences of our persistent failure to invest in an institutional infrastructure we need to fall back on today. He explains how lingering funding cuts from the 2008 Great Recession have left teachers underpaid in many places, classes too large, key support staff laid off, and buildings poorly maintained. Bryant reports on new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics urging the reopening of schools based on new medical evidence that children are less likely to catch the virus or to be contagious. Finally he examines the contradiction in President Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s demands that schools be reopened at the same time the Trump administration and Senator Mitch McConnell are blocking a bill already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to provide federal relief assistance vitally necessary if schools are going to reopen. And Bryant adds that both Trump and DeVos are insisting on more federal funding for private schools at the expense of public schools. Bryant wonders: “So now teachers are expected to save the nation’s bacon?”
On Tuesday, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos launched a full bore campaign to pressure states and school districts to reopen next month. POLITICO’s Nicole Gaudiano quotes a tweet in which Trump politicizes reopening schools and threatens to deny funding for school districts that develop plans to mix online and in-person schedules: “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”
The NY Times‘ Peter Baker and Erica Green describe Tuesday’s push by the White House to politicize the issue of reopening schools: “In a daylong series of conference calls and public events at the White House, the president, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other senior officials opened a concerted campaign to lean on governors, mayors and others to resume classes in person months after more than 50 million children were abruptly ejected from school buildings in March. Mr. Trump and his administration argued that the social, psychological and educational costs of keeping children at home any longer would be worse than the virus itself. But they offered no concrete proposals or new financial assistance to states and localities struggling to restructure academic settings, staffs and programs that were never intended to keep children six feet apart or cope with the requirements of combating a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans… The president’s focus on schools and colleges, freighted with campaign-season politics, came as the United States topped three million coronavirus infections and the vast majority of states were experiencing new spikes… The issue has enormous consequences for the economy as well as the upcoming election. With children at home, many parents are unable to resume work, hindering the economic resurgence Mr. Trump hopes to spur before the Nov. 3 vote. And so, like wearing masks, the issue of reopening schools has become one more battleground in the ferocious ideological wars that divide America.”
On Wednesday, in a follow-up, Baker, Green and Noah Weiland updated their story, adding that the President has demanded that schools ignore the Center for Disease Control’s “very tough & expensive (school-reopening) guidelines.” Now the CDC has announced it will distribute new guidlines, which, of course, are likely to be more lenient.
The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler highlights that for President Trump, the issue of opening schools involves mostly political calculus: “President Trump on Tuesday dialed up pressure on state and local authorities to reopen schools, even as coronavirus cases spike…The president did not mention that his own reelection prospects may depend on whether voters see the country as having recovered from the economic and social devastation of the novel coronavirus pandemic. It’s also unclear whether the schools push will be a political winner for Trump. Some parents are eager to return to normal but many others, fearful of the virus, have told districts they want to keep their children home this fall…. Making his case for a return to normal, Trump repeatedly played down the rising number of coronavirus cases, saying treatments and vaccines are coming soon He said there are only more cases because the country is doing more testing, a point health experts dispute.”
Meckler continues, highlighting the plight of teachers who would be required to return to reopened schools. Much will depend on whether schools can be made safe for the children and for their teachers: “A statement from the two teachers unions and four other school associations said they, too, want to return to the classroom but that it must be done with safety, not politics, in mind. They also said that funding is needed to cover protective equipment and other expenses.”
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 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.
President Trump and Betsy DeVos have never acknowledged the impact on public school funding of the current recession, which has devastated state tax collections. Several states cut hundreds of millions of dollars from their state budgets before June 30th, which was for many states the end of the 2020 fiscal year. In a June 11, brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warned: “States’ fiscal crises threaten cuts that would damage children’s future. Due to the pandemic and resulting economic fallout, states face historic shortfalls of hundreds of billions of dollars over three state fiscal years. Absent further fiscal relief states and localities will be forced to cut services, likely including services particularly important to children, such as K-12 education and possibly even the Children’s Health Insurance Program. School districts have laid off or furloughed 760,000 employees over the last three months. Such cuts can have lasting impacts. K-12 funding faced especially damaging cuts in the Great Recession and school districts have never fully recovered from the layoffs imposed back then.”
In a follow up brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities further details what continues to be a poorly understood fiscal crisis for public schools due to the collapse of state budgets: “Our estimate of $555 billion in shortfalls over state fiscal years 2020-2022 is based on the historical relationship between unemployment and state revenues and on the average of the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and Federal Reserve Board projections.The estimate demonstrates that the federal aid that policymakers have provided to date, while helpful, will fall far short. Revised Treasury Department guidance indicates that states can use some of the aid provided in the CARES Act to cover payroll costs for public safety and public health workers through December 30, but even adding that to other existing federal aid likely won’t cover much more than $100 billion of the state shortfalls, leaving nearly $455 billion unaddressed. States hold $75 billion in their rainy day funds, a historically high amount, but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenges they now face. And, even if states use virtually all of it to cover their shortfalls, that would still leave them nearly $400 billion short. The shortfalls that local governments, tribes, and territories face are in addition to this.”
In an extraordinary commentary on reopening schools, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris explores the problem from a point of view that seems to be considered only rarely—the needs of children themselves. Burris writes on her own behalf as a retired teacher and high school principal. Her commentary does not represent the Network for Public Education, which has not taken a formal position on the reopening of schools this fall.
Burris explains: “As a former teacher and principal, I understand… (that) schools play a critical role in the lives of children beyond the delivery of instruction. As a high school principal on Long Island, much of my day was spent with counselors and social workers addressing crises in teenagers’ lives. Child protective services was called, on average, once a month. Combating truancy, school phobia, student depression, and drug dependency were part of our everyday work… Students at risk can easily slip through cracks: Due to the isolation of remote learning, those cracks have become crevices… Research tells us that socially isolated children and adolescents are at risk of depression and anxiety. We know that too much screen time can result in inattention and impulsivity, and mental health disorders in both children and adolescents. And preliminary studies have shown that all but top students are academically falling behind—with the most disadvantaged students experiencing the most significant learming loss.”
Burris concludes that reopening schools will be “complicated. It may mean periodic shifts to remote instruction for some classes or even schools if surges return… Reopening schools will not be easy or inexpensive. Flexibility and resources will be required. Congress must send funding to states specifically dedicated to ensuring that schools can open safely—money that supplements, not supplants state funding to schools. If we have the funds to bail out corporations, how can we tell our schools to keep children and teachers safe with less?”