As school districts move closer to the date when they had expected to open, more and more districts are falling back on distance learning for all or part of the first semester. Public education is the primary American social institution which supports children and their families: Why are our political leaders so oblivious? Why does the President refuse to take sufficient steps to control the transmission of COVID-19? And how, in early August, can the U.S. Senate fail to make safely reopening public schools a top priority?
On Saturday, the NY Times reported: “(H)undreds of districts across the country that were once planning to reopen their classrooms, many on a part-time basis, have reversed course in recent weeks as infections have spiked in many states… Of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, all but six have announced they will start remotely….” Two essential conditions for starting in-person school are missing. The pandemic is raging out of control; no school district can reopen in locations with uncontrolled infection rates. And even in places where the coronavirus has been contained, schools must be able to take steps to protect students, teachers, bus drivers, and other staff.
We are now seeing reports that expose the complexity of school reopening—something perhaps the President and Mitch McConnell have never really thought about. In a NY Times column last week, three doctors set out to clarify the risks and challenges. The article features a table with colored boxes categorizing the risk of various ways to cope with the essentials that must be present in every school district. The first set of boxes considers the risks involved in just getting kids to and from school. In the box marked “low risk,” the doctors suggest walking or riding a bicycle or riding in a car with household members only. The second category is “medium risk,” and in this box the doctors suggest carpooling including non-household members. The third category is “high risk.” Here the doctors warn about transporting students in school buses or having them ride to school on public transportation including subways and public buses. If a child lives close enough and the streets are safe enough for the child to walk or ride a bicycle, that’s great. If a mother or father can drive the child to school and pick up the child every day, that is OK, too.
But in New York City, which no longer assigns middle and high school students to a neighborhood school and instead features universal public school choice, a mass of older students—in that school district which serves a million students—depend on the subway and public buses. And in the rest of the country, last week CNN reported that last school year roughly half of the 50 million public school students in the U.S. rode school buses: “More than 25 million students typically use buses to get to and from school….” In the rest of CNN’s report we learn about the myriad steps different school districts are taking to try to make their school buses safe for the students and their drivers, and we learn that in many places, there won’t be enough room on the buses to serve all the students unless there is lots of money (and the time) to buy more buses and hire more drivers. Problems with transportation are merely one of the reasons many districts had considered hybrid reopening plans with student learning virtually from home on some days and in school on other days.
Politico’s Michael Heath compares school planning in the U.S. and other nations: “Countries with open schools tend to fall into two categories. Some took swift action against the pandemic in January to minimize disruption. Others were less proactive in the fight against COVID-19… but they prioritized education in their recovery plan, coordinated by the top levels of government. The United States did neither. That lumps the U.S. in the same ranks as most of the developing world, including large swaths of Africa, South America and Asia, that are keeping children home. According to data from UNICEF and UNESCO, less than one in 10 school students around the world are enjoying regular in-person teaching. Most of those countries, however, have far fewer health and economic resources to get kids back in classrooms… The United States does not face the same economic choices, but funding is a political flash point. In Connecticut, the Cornwall school district spends three times the amount per student as the poorest districts, Danbury and New Britain, a difference of around $27,000 per student per year…. Nearly all of that is driven by local taxes. In the absence of both federal funding and a national strategy for virus control, poorer schools have been left facing federal pressure to reopen without commensurate assistance.”
The HEALS Act, the joint plan the Trump administration and Senate leadership presented in the U.S. Senate last week, is grossly inadequate. Everyone knows it is merely the opening gambit in what will be a contentious negotiation, but the bill’s inadequate support for school budgets is deplorable. Washington Post reporter Laura Meckler and two colleagues describe the education provisions in the HEALS Act: “The GOP bill includes $105 billion for education, with $70 billion targeted to K-12 schools. Of that, two-thirds of the funding (is) reserved to help schools to reopen for in-person instruction. To get the funding schools would have to meet certain ‘minimum opening requirements’ established by their states. Trump has demanded that schools open fully for the fall term, even as COVID-19 cases rise. He’s threatened to pull federal funding from those who don’t.”
Education Week‘s Daarel Burnette II adds: “Here are four things to consider when trying to better understand districts’ fiscal outlook. (1) States’ fiscal outlook will probably get worse… (2) The $70 billion that Senate Republicans want to provide schools in the HEALS Act is not enough to help all the districts who will need help… (3) State and local governments would not receive any aid in the current Republican proposal, and that means school funding advocates would have a more difficult fight in state legislatures this year. While public school funding takes up, on average, around half of states’ budgets, many other public services, including health departments, higher education, and welfare services will have their hands out… (4) Reopening schools online only will save some money, but not enough… (C)losing school buildings can save districts’ transportation and substitute teacher costs, but other costs, such as food services and online learning rise.”
In a brief for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last week, the agency’s executive director, Robert Greenstein evaluated the HEALS Act’s failure to support the nation’s public schools: “As noted, the plan does provide some aid for schools. But the bulk of those funds would be for schools that reopen irrespective of the health risks, and the funding cannot be used for expenses such as teachers’ salaries that states and localities have difficulty covering because of their depleted revenues. This could push many schools to reopen prematurely and leave districts that can’t reopen safely without the resources needed for adequate remote instruction. Moreover, teacher layoffs and other education cuts that result from state budget shortfalls will likely have the greatest impact on high-poverty schools, which disproportionately serve children of color, as they already tend to receive less ongoing funding (due to their smaller property-tax bases) and often face higher costs to educate children with greater needs.”
Not only will any federal infusion of money come too late for school districts to be able to receive the funds before schools traditionally open for the fall semester, but it will take additional weeks for school districts to invest the funds in improving ventilation systems, reconfiguring spaces for social distancing, and making buses safe.
Congress will continue negotiating, but the U.S. Senate does not appear willing to invest what the House proposed in the bill it passed on May 15th, the HEROES Act—the first gambit in the negotiations. Unless Congress provides federal assistance for state governments, the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children—the districts whose local tax bases are low—will fall farther behind in their capacity to serve their students. When teachers struck in 2018 and 2019, they were addressing inequity worsened a decade ago by the Great Recession—in states like Oklahoma with among the worst school funding across the states and in cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago, where the public schools serve masses of poor children.
When COVID-19 struck last spring, many people said it opened our eyes to the depth of American inequality. Surely, many said, this would be an inflection point and we would do better now. The U.S. Senate HEALS Act is not an example of doing better. It is designed to hurt the poorest families not only by slashing their unemployment benefits and removing protection from eviction, but also by setting up the nation’s poorest school districts for larger class sizes (as teachers are laid off), fewer college counselors, fewer school nurses, shuttered school libraries, more limited curriculum with fewer advanced classes, and less school music, drama, and art. Because already poor school districts rely on state assistance to try to provide adequate programming while property-wealthy school districts raise enough local tax dollars to enrich their students’ learning experiences, a state budget collapse in a recession inevitably causes spiraling educational inequality.