Network for Public Education Releases New Report on Charter School Closure, Churn, and Instability

Last week the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a fine new report tracking school closures over time in the charter school sector. The comprehensive new study, Broken Promises: An Analysis of Charter School Closures from 1999-2017, tracks built-in instability in this education sector which sucks money out of the public schools.

Charter schools are paid for with public tax dollars and surely ought to operate for the benefit of their students and the communities where they are located. But the charter school sector has been troubled from the beginning. For years we have learned about problems in charter schools, one school at at time, one scandal at a time: academic failure, graft and corruption, sudden school closures, selection of students in a sector that is supposed to be open to all, the violation of students’ rights through punitive discipline and pushout schemes, and other problems. It has been hard to get a handle on overall trends, as a succession of breaches of the public good were reported one-at-a-time, city-by-city in the press.  The Broken Promises report instead documents a long trend.

NPE’s new report begins by defining the marketplace philosophy underneath the idea of charter schools: “Charter schools began in the 1990s as an experimental alternative to public schools. Today charter schools are a multi-billion dollar sector composed of both nonprofit and for-profit corporations that embrace the philosophy of the marketplace. The survival of charter schools, much like the survival of small businesses, depends on their ability to out-compete other schools and to attract new customers. Unlike businesses, however, public tax dollars are used to pay charter operators who personally assume little financial risk. The public places bets on schools in a marketplace model. Too often, it is a losing gamble. Supporters of charters see school failure as a natural feature of the model.” The overly simplistic assumption is that the schools which don’t serve children well will cease to attract customers, and the weakest schools will shut down. The model is premised on a belief that the market will enforce an upward spiral of perpetual improvement. It hasn’t worked.

What has occurred instead is instability paid for with our tax dollars.  The new NPE report begins by quoting a New Orleans mother speaking to the Orleans Parish School Board in a school district that began the nation’s largest charter school experiment in the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Last year, parent Eloise Matthews learned that her child’s school was shutting down: “I am a parent of Mary D. Coghill (charter school). For the last three years I have had to place my kids at different schools each year because the schools keep closing. My child was attending MCPA, that school closed.  He then went to Medard Nelson, that school closed.  Now, he is at Coghill and y’all are trying to close that school. I am tired of moving my child every year because y’all are closing schools.”

Underneath the Network for Public Education’s new Broken Promises report is a reminder that a valued characteristic of traditional public school districts across the United States is stability. Public schools are essential institutions for anchoring neighborhoods, and public high schools are institutions of community pride across generations.  In contrast, the unstable charter sector is defined by competition for higher aggregate student test scores and a private operator’s business savvy in a marketplace. Overall, across the states, “The large and growing number of charter schools that fail raises questions about the stability and efficacy of the charter sector. What is the expected life-cycle of a charter school? When a parent enrolls their kindergartner, what is the probability that the school will be there when they graduate to the next level of schooling? How many students are displaced when charter schools close? Which neighborhoods are most affected? Why do so many charter schools fail? Is this merely the result of ‘accountability’ based on academic performance, or are charter school failures inherent in the competitive, market-based model?”

NPE explains: “This report provides the first comprehensive examination of charter failure rates over time—beginning in 1999 and ending in 2017. By following all charter schools, from the year they opened, we were able to determine how long they lasted before closing down. We also determined how many students have been displaced by failing charter schools… We found charter closure rates to be alarmingly high, rising to 50 percent by the 15-year mark.”  Eighteen percent of charter schools closed within the first three years of operation. “By year ten, 40 percent of charter schools had closed… Between 1999 and 2017, over 867,000 students were displaced when their charter school closed.”  And finally, “In three of the poorest cities in America—Detroit, Tucson, and Milwaukee—the rate of charter closures was higher in areas with greater than 30 percent of households in poverty… Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida had the top failure rates at both the five-year and ten-year mark.  Ohio was in the top five at both benchmark years.”

In three cities, Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee, the authors examine the various reported reasons charter schools have shut down: academic failure, an operator’s decision to close the school, low enrollment, financial failure, fiscal mismanagement, and a multiplicity of these problems.  The introduction, however, turns our attention to New Orleans, an experiment launched Shock Doctrine fashion, without sufficient oversight in the midst of a natural catastrophe. Louisiana has kept on expanding the experiment for fifteen years since Hurricane Katrina struck in September of 2005: “Because every school in New Orleans is now a charter school, it is likely this instability will continue…. New Orleans presently has about 80 charter schools run by 38 different private, unelected boards. While the total number of schools in the city may be relatively stable, individual schools are not. Charter churn is baked into the New Orleans model—more than 35 charter schools in the city shut down between 2006, the year following Hurricane Katrina, and 2017.  Surviving schools are frequently taken over by new operators, who often have a very different mission and vision for the school. The days of stable schools rooted in New Orleans’ communities and governed by local elected boards are gone… The promise of better opportunities for local children has become a promise broken over and over again.”

Why is the public not aware of the problem of charter school closures? “The enormity of charter failure (50 percent by year 15) has been largely masked by the accelerated pace of new charters opening. The narrative of charter advocates highlights the number of newly opened schools… However, increases in openings correlate with increases in closures… A new charter does not pop up next door to take the displaced students and their teachers… (P)arents are often left scrambling to find a school in far less time than a new school could open. And if their choice is another charter school, they may meet with the reality that only four states (Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, and Massachusetts) require that charter schools admit new students mid-year. Therefore, the burden of a charter’s closure more often falls upon the local public school, which finds itself with an unexpected influx of students whose charter had failed or pushed them out. Schools can’t adequately plan for staffing, materials, and facilities when there is no way of knowing when or if a nearby charter school might put 50 or 100 kids on the street on a Friday, knowing that the public school is obligated to enroll them on a Monday morning.”

The report concludes: “(M)ost charter advocates argue that charter closure is not a bad thing. They believe that charter churn will ultimately result in an improved sector of schools. However, there is scant evidence that charter schooling has improved much during its three-decade experiment.  Regardless, it is doubtful that the nearly one million children displaced by shuttered charter schools would agree that small gains in narrow measures of school quality like standardized test scores are worth the disruption in relationships with classmates, teachers, and staff.”

The Network for Public Education’s new Broken Promises report builds on other comprehensive investigations that have begun appearing.

Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste, The Network for Public Education, April, 2019; and a follow-up report Still Asleep at the Wheel, December, 2019.

Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, Gordon Lafer, In the Public Interest, May, 2018.

Charters and Consequences, Network for Public Education, November, 2017.

Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Bruce Baker, Economic Policy Institute, November, 2016.

Myths and Facts About the COVID-19 Public Education Relief Being Debated in Congress

Congress is debating a new COVID-19 relief bill, and there is much unhappiness, mythology and confusion about what is being proposed to support the nation’s 98,000 public schools, which are being forced to undertake big expenses to reconfigure classrooms and buses for social distancing and to improve ventilation systems.  At the same time school districts are coping with unprecedented state budget cuts which are forcing districts to lay off teachers and other essential staff.

Here is some background.

  • The first gambit in the Congressional negotiations over more COVID-19 aid was the HEROES Act, passed on May 15, by the U.S. House of Representatives and sent to the Senate, where the bill languished for two and a half months. The House’s  HEROES Act (if passed by Congress) would provide $90 billion for public education (including higher education) along with $915 billion to shore up state, local, and tribal governments during the COVID-19 fiscal downturn.
  • The HEALS Act, proposed piecemeal on July 27th by U.S. Senate Republicans, includes $105 billion for education—$70 billion for K-12 public schools and the rest for higher education.  For Forbes, Sarah Hansen explains the so-called bill’s release: “Senate Republicans on Monday released their plan for the next coronavirus relief package: the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act. But the legislation didn’t come all at once: instead, it trickled out from a handful of Senators and committees in different outlines and bills, including a few items that predate the Covid-19 crisis.”
  • As of yesterday, the terms of the negotiations had shifted. Senate Republicans and the Trump administration were fighting to reserve the $70 billion in their HEALS Act proposal for schools opening with in-person classes. Senate Democrats had reduced their demand for relief for state and local governments to $875 billion and increased their request for combined relief for public schools as well as child care for a total of $430 billion, the amount needed for funding services outlined in a separate bill introduced on June 30 by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

Sometimes on the news shows there is considerable confusion about the details of the various proposals. Here are some of the myths and lies you may hear from politicians. Sometimes the myths and lies get reported as though they are the truth.  Even as the negotiations for public education assistance are developing and shifting, you are very likely to hear the following myths.

First Myth     The leaders in the U.S. Senate say there is more money for public schools in the HEALS Act than there is in the HEROES Act: The HEALS Act would award $105 billion for K-12 and higher education while the HEROES Act would award only $90 billion.

The Facts     The problem is that, while he House HEROES Act would support state and local governments with $915 billion, the Senate’s HEALS Act does not contain relief for state and local governments at a time when income, sales, and property tax revenues are collapsing.  State aid for K-12 public schools is among the biggest lines in any state budget, in some states comprising half of the annual general revenue outlay.  States need assurance that federal assistance will protect primary state functions—Medicaid, public education, public higher education, and corrections—without drastic cuts in services. The Vice President for State Policy and Tax at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Michael Leachman explains that already, “Huge state and local budget shortfalls are forcing schools to lay off teachers and other employees, making it even harder to open safely or provide adequate remote instruction.  Because the pandemic forced states to shut down their economies, state and local revenues have fallen off the table. Already, states and localities have furloughed or laid off 1.5 million workers, including 667,000 bus drivers, cleaning staff and other school workers, and imposed other steep funding cuts.  Without more federal aid, cash strapped states—which must balance their budgets each year—likely will continue cutting school funding, forcing more layoffs and other cuts in school support… Yet the Senate Republican plan… offers no new general fiscal aid to states, only to schools to cover reopening costs… With fewer staff and dollars, schools would find it even harder to open safely and provide high-quality instruction.”

Second Myth      The Trump administration and Senate Republicans claim there is a lot of money left over from the CARES Act, the first COVID-19 relief bill, money sitting around that states haven’t yet spent.  Maybe, say these politicians, since there is leftover CARES Act money, states don’t really need another relief package. Or maybe the President could use an executive order to redirect leftover money to areas where it can be spent.  Or at least as part of the HEALS Act, instead of appropriating relief money to states, Congress could just give the states more freedom about how to spend any leftover CARES Act money.

The Facts     The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman devotes an entire brief to clearing up this set of myths: “The Trump Administration and some news outlets are citing Treasury Department data showing that states had spent 25 percent of the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) as of June 30 to argue that states don’t need more fiscal aid to address their massive, pandemic-induced budget shortfalls.  Policymakers shouldn’t take this argument seriously for three main reasons: (1) States have already allocated three-quarters of the CRF, a survey by the National Association of Budget officers found.  This means they’ve committed these funds to health care providers, local governments, businesses, and others whose costs have risen due to the pandemic. Those entities are counting on the funds to reimburse costs they’ve already incurred or will soon incur… (2) Treasury’s data cover less than half the time that states have to spend the CRF.  Recipients may spend the CRF to cover costs incurred to respond to Covid-19 from March 1 through December 30… (3) Treasury’s confusing guidance has hampered CRF recipients. Treasury’s confusing and contradictory guidance about the CRF’s allowable uses, which it issued gradually over several weeks, slowed the process… as states, localities, and other governments tried to decipher it and sought further clarification.  Most importantly, Treasury barred states from using the aid to offset the massive revenue losses from the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, which is the main cause of the fiscal crisis… The reality is that states, localities, tribal nations, and U.S. territories need significantly more federal aid… States and localities already have furloughed or laid off some 1.5 million workers.”

Leachman provides further details about why it won’t significantly help states if Congress gives states additional flexibility to use CARES Act CRF dollars: “For starters, some states have already allocated all of their CRF funding (such as California, Colorado, and Mississippi) or large parts of it (such as Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Carolina); and others, including Alaska and Minnesota have promised nearly half the money to local governments.  Indeed, Treasury told states to give nearly half their allocations—$50 billion of the $110 billion total—to small local governments.”

Third Myth Being Spread by Deficit Hawks     What about the idea that federal deficit spending is dangerous? People say that if we run up the federal deficit now by passing a huge relief bill, it will just make our children and grandchildren shoulder an unbearable debt burden.

The Facts     Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and NY Times columnist doesn’t worry about this a bit. Krugman says “(T)his… slump doesn’t have to be accompanied by severe financial hardship…There’s also no reason we should see punishing cuts in essential public services… When I say that we have the resources to avoid severe financial hardship, I’m referring to the federal government, which can borrow vast sums very cheaply. In fact, the interest rate on inflation-protected bonds, which measure real borrowing costs, is minus 0.43 percent. Investors are basically paying the feds to hold their money. So Washington can and should run big budget deficits in this time of need. State and local governments, however, can’t, because almost all of them are required by law to run balanced budgets. Yet these governments, which are on the front line of dealing with the pandemic, are facing a combination of collapsing revenue and soaring expenses.”

How Much Does All This Matter?     All this seems extremely technical.  Does another significant COVID-19 relief package really matter that much and is relief to prop up state budgets really that important?  This week C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study about the effect on school achievement nationwide of the Great Recession and the 2009, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill. The report is short—only three pages—but relatively technical. I’ll let you read the details.  It is, however, important to look at the researchers’ conclusions, for they show that, despite a sizeable 2009 federal stimulus bill, cuts to education funding were large, and they have been long lasting. Staffing levels have not yet fully recovered. Among the students in America’s public schools over the last decade, overall test scores dropped, fewer students went on to college, and the effects were most harmful in schools serving African American students.

Here are some of Jackson’s conclusions: “We find that, by and large, money matters. On average, a $1,000 reduction in per-pupil spending reduces average test scores in math and reading by 3.9 percent of a standard deviation and increases the score gap between black and white students by roughly 6 percent.  A $1,000 reduction also lowers the college-going rate by about 2.6 percent.  Declines in test scores and college-going tracked the recession-induced decline in per-pupil spending and did not abate as the economy recovered….”

School districts did not make the greatest cuts in programs and operating expenses; instead they put off capital expenses—building maintenance and repairs.  “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending.  For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average.  Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office.  We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors.  This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor.”

Finally: “We show that declining state support and subsequent cuts in local school budgets can slow student progress with potentially lasting consequences. First, the spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement.  Second, those cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education… More than a decade later, some of the education spending cuts linked to the Great Recession have yet to be fully restored. In the pandemic era, as we face another impending recession and constrained state budgets, the years ahead appear likely to include further cuts.”

Biden Offers Hope for Turning Around Awful DeVos Education Policy

This summer some people have said it seems like deja vu all over again. In 2009, right after Barack Obama was elected President, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used over $4 billion of the public education dollars Congress had appropriated as part of a huge federal stimulus package and attached rules that made states adopt Duncan’s own pet programs in order to qualify for the money.  Now Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have distributed CARES Act dollars in a way that favors DeVos’s favorite charter schools and private schools at the expense of what she calls “government” schools—the ones our society counts on to serve 50 million of our children.

The Secretary of Education—and in the case of Payroll Protection Program dollars, the Small Business Administration—can control the distribution of education stimulus dollars, because dispersing relief money is administered by the administration without direct Congressional oversight unless prohibitions for particular practices are written into the enabling legislation.

You will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Arne Duncan administered a $4.3 billion Race to the Top Program, a $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, and a $650 million Innovation Grant program. Duncan and  the U.S. Department of Education conditioned these grants on getting states to change their own laws to adopt what were later recognized as the most controversial priorities of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. To qualify for Race to the Top, for example, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization, and adopt “college-and-career-ready” standards, which, in practice, meant they were agreeing to adopt what became the overly constrictive, unwieldy and expensive Common Core and accompanying tests.  Underneath all of these programs was also a big change in the philosophy underneath federal education policy. Despite that races with winners always create losers, Duncan modeled his trademark education programs on the way philanthropies award funds: through competition. As the Department of Education diverted some Title I funds into competitive programs rather than simply awarding them through the Title I Formula, which is designed to supplement state and local funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children, the Duncan programs enhanced education only for the children in the winning states and school districts.

Now Betsy DeVos has set out to divert some of the CARES Act relief funding, passed by Congress last March, to support privately operated charter schools and private schools instead of the public schools tor which most of the funds were intended by Congress. Public schools need federal stimulus relief to compensate for big budget cuts in state school funding as state budgets collapsed in the COVID-19 recession, and public schools need to make all sorts of expensive adjustments to ensure safety during the pandemic. But all over the country charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated were allowed to take advantage of their public/private status and take CARES Act Payroll Protection Program (PPP) dollars awarded through the Small Business Administration and intended to help small businesses maintain employment. The Network for Public Education recently reported: “The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools informed its members via email in March that it had successfully lobbied for charter schools to receive PPP funds and provided instructions on how much funding could be obtained.” “More than 1,300 charter schools and their nonprofit or for-profits and management companies secured between $925 million and $2.2 billion through PPP.”

In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created guidance that redirects a disproportionate amount of a school district’s CARES Act public school relief assistance to the private schools located within the geographic boundary of the school district.  Congress distributed CARES Act education aid through the Title I Formula—which targets assistance to school districts with concentrations of poor children and ALSO provides that a school district will provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within the district boundaries. However, DeVos set up CARES Act guidance to insist that the private schools would receive a portion of the CARES Act dollars proportional not just for the poor students enrolled in a private school, but instead for the private school’s full enrollment.

All this is, of course, extremely worrisome, because billions of CARES Act dollars needed in America’s public schools right now have found their way into charter schools, charter management organizations, and private schools. But there is an important difference in the way Arne Duncan was able to manipulate states to adopt his policies and what is currently happening.

Betsy DeVos has not been able to create the political to leverage to promote her policies in a way that they will survive her tenure.  Most of us hope Betsy DeVos’s effort to use CARES Act dollars to support charter schools and private schools is her final push, her final personal opportunity to expand and support privatized schooling at public expense. When, in 2009, Arne Duncan used federal stimulus to set up Race to the Top and his other grant competitions, he had just been appointed. He served as education secretary until December of 2015, when Congress finally got fed up with his top down intervention in the nation’s public schools and when his policies and the No Child Left Behind policies on which they were based had begun falling out of favor. Duncan’s signature strategy during his six year tenure was basically to use federal grants to bribe states to embed his pet programs into their own laws, a strategy which gave his programs lasting power because rescinding them would require action by each of the state legislatures which had adopted Duncan’s policies. For example, some states are still evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, even though the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association have shown students’ test scores are invalid and unreliable for evaluating teachers.

If President Trump is re-elected and Betsy DeVos is re-appointed as education secretary, all bets are off.

But—and I’ll admit it is still a long time until November—I believe it looks increasingly unlikely that DeVos will be our education secretary beginning in 2021.  Further, there is no evidence that Congress has bought into her policies and no evidence that, apart from diverting CARES Act dollars and  making annual startup and expansion grants to particular charter schools and chains of charter schools under the 25-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, she has been able to inject her own favorite policies across the states. For four years President Trump has included her $5 billion Opportunity Scholarship tuition tax credit idea in the President’s proposed federal budget, and every year Congress has ignored the request.

If Joe Biden is elected in November, I believe we can look forward to an abrupt reversal of education policy. Biden will work to get the pandemic under control; then he will prioritize supporting the safe opening of public schools. He has also pledged to address what COVID-19 has shown us is the greatest challenge for our nation’s children: extreme inequality.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan prioritizes equity in the public schools: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals.  Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden would expand full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building.

Last week, when American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed a virtual AFT biennial convention, she bragged about Biden’s agenda for public education: “Imagine a world with: universal pre-K; debt forgiveness for educators; triple Title I funding, expanded Community Schools; supports for kids with special needs; high-stakes testing thrown out the window; charter school accountability; public colleges and universities tuition-free for families who earn less than $125,000. That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.”

Joe Biden’s education plan differs radically from Betsy DeVos’s priorities. Biden, whose education plan aims to strengthen our nation’s 98,000 traditional public schools, supports neither expanding privately operated charter schools nor diverting money out of public school budgets to pay for private school vouchers or tuition tax credit programs. Although Betsy DeVos may have used the CARES Act to reward privatized charter schools and private schools and although she may try the same tricks in the rules for distributing any further stimulus dollars, I am increasingly hopeful that Betsy DeVos will be replaced next winter, and a new administration will be far more attentive to addressing the urgent needs in the nation’s public schools.

Congressional Failure to Provide Relief for State Budgets and Public Schools Will Launch Spiraling Educational Inequality

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.

Our Children Need Us to Bring the Pandemic Under Control: Only Then Can Public Schools Fully Reopen

Widespread disarray as schools struggle to figure out how to reopen is a catastrophe we have permitted to occur this summer as we all watched. Most of us failed to pay enough attention. On some level, I have begun to worry that, in the midst of all the current partisan political upheaval and the stress of the pandemic, America has forgotten to care enough about our children.

State budgets, which are a primary funder of U.S. public education, collapsed last spring due to a COVID-19 recession. On May 15, to shore up state budgets and public education, the U.S. House passed the HEROES Act, but the U.S. Senate is only now taking up the bill. President Donald Trump has denied the seriousness of the pandemic and failed to coordinate a plan to bring infection levels under control. School leaders have been left scrambling just weeks before school is supposed to start.  Will students be in school full time, or will they learn online as they did last spring, or will schools be forced to create hybrid in-person/online schedules to ensure social distancing in classrooms and on school buses?

Do we in America value our children?  Do we need a reminder of the vision the American philosopher John Dewey described in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.  All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Suddenly in the past couple of weeks, the reopening of public schools this fall has become a big deal, because school district leaders are up against a deadline. But all summer, we just sort of forgot to pay attention. With Congress back in session this week, money for starting school this fall is part of a coronavirus relief bill being debated, but it seems agreement may take several weeks. If Congress finally appropriates billions of dollars, when will the money become available for superintendents to hire teachers and school districts to retrofit ventilation systems?  Nobody knows.

Yesterday, in an analysis published jointly by the NY Times and Chalkbeat, Chalkbeat‘s editor Sarah Darville summarizes what many do not fully grasp: the complexity of reopening public schools this fall:  “Of all the American institutions the pandemic has shut down, none face pressure to reopen quite like schools do. Pediatricians exhort schools to open their doors whenever possible or risk developmental harm to kids. Working parents, particularly mothers, are in crisis, worried about having to leave the work force altogether in the absence of a place to send their young children each day. And President Trump is campaigning for schools to reopen, threatening to withhold funding if they don’t.  The pressure has mounted as school districts have made it clear that they can do no such thing. Across the country… schools are preparing their students and staffs for a continuation of the ‘remote learning’ that began in the spring. In New York City and Chicago, where the virus is more under control, schools are moving toward a hybrid option with remote learning some days, in-person school others. Even in places like Detroit and Memphis, where districts plan to offer in-person school for those who want it, local leaders could change course if the virus cases rise…. The people left to figure it out are superintendents, school board members, teachers and parents, for whom that simple word ‘reopen’ actually entails a dizzying array of interlocking problems.”

Here is how Darville describes what schools do: “Let’s start with child care, which translates, at the barest minimum, to providing every child with a safe place to go so their patents can work and so that they can learn. For schools to play that role, they require two basic ingredients, sufficient physical space and willing and capable adult caregivers… In addition to child care, there is food—another resource schools provide that is both much more necessary and much harder to deliver because of the pandemic.  In normal times, U.S. public schools provide 30 million free or nearly-free meals a day… Our failure to get schools fully open means that meeting students’ mental health needs is even harder. And organizing hybrid schedules or remote learning may sap energy that schools need to serve students’ continuing needs.”

Near the end of her summary, Darville comes to the issue of the necessary funds to open schools safely and at the same time ensure that staff are not laid off in the midst of the serious recession that is currently depleting state school budgets: “Making schools functional will also take money, as states are facing projected shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion over the next three years thanks to the spiraling pandemic.”  Darville cites data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Two other organizations have made serious attempts this summer to raise public awareness about the severity of the fiscal crisis: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Nearly three-fourths of the way through her article, Darville reminds readers about the educational role of public schools: “If taking on the child care, food, and the mental health challenges facing American children this fall were not enough, there is also, of course the matter of making sure those children learn.  Providing any form of education this fall means reckoning with an extraordinary version of what educators call ‘summer slide.’… Heading into this school year, these constraints are profound.  After school buildings closed this spring, teachers offered various forms of substitute education from paper packets to video classroom gatherings.  Nevertheless, a small but significant share of students went totally unaccounted for as they struggled to connect to online lessons without reliable internet, took on child care responsibilities for younger siblings, or just tuned out without the familiar support of teachers and counselors. Over all, the best estimates from teachers are that six in 10 students were regularly engaged in their coursework.”

Darville does a good job of summarizing a mass of concerns, but I don’t think she conveys what many of us worry will be missing this fall when too many children will be unable to be back in school full time with their teachers.  Schools are institutions where adults care for children, but it isn’t merely a matter of emotional support or free lunches or childcare that enables parents to go to work.

In a new blog post this week, Mike Rose, the UCLA education professor and fine education writer, explores the pedagogical implications of What It Means to Care. Rose explains: “Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.”

Rose shares a passage from Possible Lives, among the most profound and inspiring books written about education.  Rose wrote Possible Lives to share four years of visiting and observing fine classrooms across the United States.  In the book he reflects on the qualities of the excellent teachers he observed. In the passage Rose shares in his blog post this week, he describes a visit to a school in the border town of Calexico, California: “The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who is also a mentor to first-year teachers at her school… One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools.”

Rose describes Elena Castro’s determination to demand much from her students and always to make school more challenging. He describes a very simple way Castro demonstrates how much she cares about a student’s learning: “Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: ‘No.’ No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day.”

Rose continues, affirming the capacity of good public school teachers to counter biases and stereotypes that limit children: “There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated… Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people.”  Rose continues, describing Castro’s classroom: “The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation ‘low achiever’ or, in some cases, ‘slow learner.’  Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. ‘The first two weeks, it was difficult,’ she explained… ‘I’d put them here (at the Writer’s Table) to write—and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say… I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them.  But… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.’  Her room was constructed on work and opportunity.”

The public conversation this month about reopening school in the midst of what is still a raging pandemic omits the kind of reflection Rose provides about the real meaning of education. We need to insist that policymakers do everything possible to ensure that students can return soon to full-time, in-person school. It isn’t a mere matter of the need for childcare or school lunches. Rose describes the kind of caring teacher every child needs.  It cannot happen remotely or via ZOOM.

Public schools cannot fully reopen, however, until the pandemic itself is brought under control.

Public Schools Can’t Open Safely Unless Congress Provides Fiscal Relief

Back in session this week following a two-week, July 4th recess, Congress must now pass emergency fiscal relief for states and local school districts to make it safe for students and their teachers to return to school this fall. To rescue school districts whose funding has already begun to erode as the recession has undermined state budgets, more federal dollars are necessary even to ensure that school systems can operate hybrid, in-person/online school opening plans—bringing in students on a staggered schedule two or three days each week to protect social distancing in classrooms and on buses.

President Donald Trump has demanded that all schools open full-time, five days a week for every student.  A new report from the American Federation of Teachers explains why such an expectation is dangerously unrealistic, especially considering that any money appropriated in late July or early August won’t arrive soon enough for school districts to repair ventilation systems, secure temporary portable classroom space, or hire a sufficient number of teachers to divide all classes in half: “Take a look at what it would cost just to do what Trump wants: fully accommodating every child in public schools for face-to-face instruction.  Assuming virus spread is tackled so that the infection rate is low enough that experts deem it safe, and assuming there are ongoing testing and contact tracing protocols, it would potentially require a half-trillion dollars to safely reopen public schools at that scale.  That means 47 percent more classrooms to ensure that students are 6 feet apart.  And it means as many as 47 percent more instructors, which would cost approximately $140 billion in salary and benefits.  If half of those additional teachers required portable classrooms, it might cost more than $115 billion…  Even if there were political will to spend that money, we have already missed the chance to make the broadest progress toward that goal, with no way to find the teachers, the classroom capacity, or the buses needed by the time fall semester starts.  The call to do this is unserious and deters from what can be done, which is to provide supports for the fullest and safest possible reopening, whether it is in-person, hybrid, or online.  In many places that hybrid model will include students attending classes part of the week in person.”

The American Federation of Teachers “calculates the need to fill a gaping $93.5 billion preK-12 funding gap and $45 billion higher education funding shortfall caused by the country’s economic slump.  And it identifies an additional $116.5 billion to equip schools and colleges with physical distancing masks, Plexiglas, hand-washing stations, cleaning supplies, test kits, and other resources like ventilation retrofits… If the federal government fails to prioritize aid to state and local governments and direct assistance to public schools and colleges, the report finds nearly 1.4 million public education jobs will be lost and schools throughout the country will be forced to meet remotely indefinitely.”

Politico reported Monday that a new COVID-19 relief package will be the top priority for Congress as it moves toward another recess in three weeks: “The House and Senate return Monday to face a critical three-week stretch ahead of the August recess, with both chambers under immense pressure to deliver another trillion dollar-plus relief package amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases… Both sides are expected to begin negotiations on a fifth tranche of emergency aid in the coming days, with a shared goal of signing something into law within three weeks.  The House is currently slated to depart for recess on July 31, with the Senate following the week after, though House members have been advised not to make plans the first week of August.  For now, both sides have been largely posturing with little to no attempts at negotiation.  Even before the start of formal talks, congressional leaders have drawn fierce battle lines about their own priorities for the package—an ominous sign for what’s expected to be the most difficult set of negotiations so far in Congress’ pandemic response.  With the economy sputtering and the fate of millions of schoolchildren uncertain this fall, GOP leaders say they plan to prioritize legal protections for businesses that reopen during the pandemic, as well as money to help schools that plan to welcome students back in person… Further complicating the talks, the White House said Friday it will push for 10 percent of the next coronavirus relief package to be set aside for ‘non-public schools and education freedom scholarships.'”

Why are public schools  across all the states facing a catastrophic budget crisis? In its new report, the American Federation of Teachers explains: “In 2017, state and local governments spent $660 billion on K-12 education, which was 21.5 percent of all direct general fund expenditures. The bulk of this education funding comes from state (47 percent) and local government (45 percent) sources, with the rest coming from Congress.  State funding sources are typically seen as most immediately threatened by the COVID-19 downturn.  But there is disturbing data in the housing market that speaks to coming instability for local property taxes as well.  In July, 30 percent of all homeowners and 36 percent of all renters did not make their full, on-time housing payment .  The virus is also going to affect real estate values in other ways, lowering some property values, although the extent of this dynamic still has not become clear.”

Job losses in public school districts—whose budgets depend solely on tax dollars—are already occurring: “Since February, there have been 667,000 jobs lost in the Bureau of Labor Statistics category ‘Local Government Education,’ which contains every school district in the nation.  This is almost double the job losses of the Great Recession.”  The American Federation of Teachers considers also the loss of jobs in public higher education and concludes: “Taken together, we estimate that next year’s budget gap could mean a total of 1,357,000 jobs lost in public education, which is 432,000 more than have already been lost… For K-12 education alone, the combined cost of restoring these jobs and securing most of the elements of a safe reopening is just over $204 billion… One of the reasons the situation we face is dire is because we did a poor job of supporting state and services during the Great Recession, leaving them weaker than they should be.”

This is not the time for Congress to engage in austerity budgeting at the expense of our children. In discussions of federal COVID-19 relief bills, we are warned by the deficit hawks that it is dangerous for the federal government to increase the federal debt by borrowing.  The Economic Policy Institute’s Josh Bivins discounts this argument in a new brief: “As always, there are some who seem more concerned about the rise in federal budget deficits and public debt than by the rise in joblessness and losses of income generated by the shock.  But prioritizing the restraint of debt in coming years over the restoration of pre-crisis employment rates is bad economics… When the economy has resources—particularly willing workers—that are unemployed simply because firms do not expect enough paying customers to justify putting more resources into producing goods and services, then the economy’s growth is constrained by demand…The economic shock of the coronavirus and the public health measures undertaken to combat it are unique in their specifics, but not actually all that different from the general cause of all other recessions.  They constitute a mammoth negative shock to aggregate demand.  Basically, all at once, tens of millions of Americans stopped spending money on a whole range of economic outputs… Because one person’s spending is another person’s income, this type of shock almost always inevitably leads to another spending pullback…. The proper response to this sudden and mammoth negative shock to demand is straightforward… First maintain spending power… during the lockdown period by providing relief…. Second, foster a rapid recovery by boosting aggregate demand….” (emphasis in original)

It is interesting to note that ensuring that public education employees—schoolteachers, counselors, school nurses, school psychologists, school social workers, certified librarians along with school principals and school superintendents—can stay employed in the schools that serve our 50 million students in elementary, middle and high schools is in itself a stimulus to the economy. These people multiply the economic effect of our public investment by spending their salaries in their local communities. Last week, Reuters reporter David Lawder explained how his works:  “K-12 schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.  Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle, and high schools compared to about six million in private schools… With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance, and insurance and transportation and warehousing. Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year…. That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021… The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12, 612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies. Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.”

Getting our nation’s children and adolescents back in school ought to be the top priority for Congress right now. Their current well-being and their collective future depend on it. The economic arguments described in this post are also among the reasons why, as the American Federation of Teachers recommends, Congress needs to pass a COVID-19 relief bill that includes the essential dollars in the HEROES Act which the House passed on May 15 and why Congress should also pass the provisions in a bill introduced in the Senate by Patty Murray (D-WA) to support K-12 school reopening and childcare.

Disappointing but Not Surprising: Trump and DeVos Ignore Equity and Abandon Safety In Demands to Reopen Schools

There is lots of penetrating writing about the collapse of our society’s ideals in these months since mid-March, when we suddenly realized the coronavirus was among us. As the weeks wore on last spring, and children were thrust into online lessons provided by their schools, a vast invisible digital chasm between wealthy and poor families was immediately exposed.  People vowed that the COVID-19 pandemic would be an inflection point.  America would address growing inequity between the extremely privileged and working families living paycheck to paycheck.

But all summer the Trump administration and Congress have ignored the problems set to emerge when school districts’ released plans for resuming school this fall. The Senate has put off even considering the amount of relief dollars necessary to ensure basic staffing and safety. This week, as the Trump administration falters, the press has been paying attention.  I urge you to read carefully the articles briefly excerpted here to explore what needs to happen in the next month.

The Nation‘s Ellie Mystal most vividly depicts today’s dismaying and confusing realities for families as the Trump administration and Congress have shown not the least concern for the public institution that serves our nation’s children on behalf of our society: “After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, President Barack Obama delivered what I have always believed to be the best speech of his presidency.  He talked about what it’s like to be a parent, and the critical realization, experienced by most parents, that you can’t keep your children safe or teach them well without the help of your friends and neighbors.  Then he expanded that idea to include the whole of society.  He said, ‘This is our first task—caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.'”

Mystal continues: “We have not gotten anything right when it comes to caring for our children.  We were not getting things right before the coronavirus pandemic; we did not get things right at the outset of the crisis; and as we hurtle towards the fall, we are on the verge of getting things dangerously, irreparably wrong again…  It didn’t have to be this way.  If we had successfully done the work of stopping the spread of the virus, as has been done in other countries, we wouldn’t have to pick which poison to expose our kids to…  Meanwhile, just last week, President Donald Trump worried that CDC guidelines for protecting our children were too ‘expensive.’… And so, we are here.  I wouldn’t let my children eat candy handed out by this administration. There are snakes with better parental instincts than these people.”

For a more abstract evaluation, you can investigate another piece in The Nation, in which Rhea Boyd explores concerns about reopening schools through the lens of a complex economic and sociological analysis: “The wealth gap between the richest and poorest families has more than doubled since 1989.  And the top 1 percent of earners now hold more wealth than the bottom 80 percent… Current debates about reopening schools must be placed in this context, because they illuminate broader and longer fights to remedy racially apportioned accession to mobility… (P)ublic education—like public health, utilities, and public spaces—has become a critical terrain of struggle for greater equality in the United States… But this is the most devastating part.  Despite the poorly funded safety net, folks who fall on hard times are not just victims of a ‘broken system.’  Inequality is the point.  ‘Hard times’ are mass-engineered.  And the reason recent attempts at safety continue to come up short in this country—even in the face of existential threats to human existence like COVID-19—is that in an extractive economy, taking safety from some people hoards it for others.”

At Stanford University, the Learning Policy Institute’s “Learning in the Time of Covid-19 Blog” features Michael A. DeNapoli Jr. writing about the U.S. Senate’s responsibility this week to support schools with  sufficient funds to open safely this fall as the President is currently demanding: “The federal government has a unique and essential role to play in ensuring that students—especially those furthest from opportunity—do not bear the brunt of the economic hardships created by COVID-19.  States, unlike the federal government, cannot engage in massive borrowing and other fiscal maneuvers in response to significant and unforeseen fiscal crises.”

DiNapoli continues: “Much like fiscal recovery from a natural disaster, states must rely on the support of the federal government, which has both the resources and the budget flexibility states lack.  As federal policymakers craft future relief packages, two key questions should guide their analysis: First, what will it take to make school districts whole—that is, make sure they have sufficient funding to cover the myriad of added costs and budget cuts associated with COVID-19?  And second, how can federal funds be used to address historic and current inequities in ways that put us on a path toward a more just educational future?… Underlying the worst economic downturn in nearly 100 years are long-standing racial and economic inequities that have impacted educational opportunity.  The United States has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of the countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  Black, Latino/a, and Native American children experience much higher rates of poverty than their White counterparts.  Children living in poverty in the United States also have a much weaker safety net than their peers living in other industrialized countries, where universal health care, housing subsidies, paid parental leave, and high-quality, universally available child care are the norm… States are facing extensive new K-12 education expenses as a result of COVID-19, including those related to providing distance learning, expanded learning, and additional food services for low-income families… While this pandemic has touched nearly every school district, the impact of budget cuts and the level of student needs are not equally distributed… We should therefore target emergency funding where it is needed most… Research consistently shows that investments made in strong educational programming (mainly high-quality teaching) and the resources necessary to learn are effective at closing opportunity gaps and increasing achievement. This was the strategy used for a time in Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New Jersey, which resulted in shrinking gaps and improved outcomes for all students.”

At the same time there has been growing press coverage about how things are more likely to go this fall as families with money find ways to protect their own children.  For the NY TimesClaire Cain Miller covers the growing disparity between public schools and elite private schools with sufficient resources to make major adjustments to control the pandemic. At Punahou, a private school in Honolulu, “The school has an epidemiologist on staff and is installing thermal scanners in the hallways to take people’s temperatures as they walk by. It has a new common area and design lab as well as an 80-acre campus that students can use to spread out. There were already two teachers for 25 children, so it will be easy to cut classes in half to meet public health requirements for small, consistent groups.  The same thing is happening in communities across the country: Public schools plan to open not at all or just a few days a week, while many private schools are opening full time… Public schools, which serve roughly 90 percent of American children, tend to have less money, larger class sizes and less flexibility…. (O)ver all, fall reopening plans are just another way the pandemic has widened gaps in education.”

At the Washington Post, Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson report a growing trend among some parents who can afford it: “Fed up with remote education, parents who can pay have a new plan for fall: import teachers to their homes.  This goes beyond tutoring.  In some cases, families are teaming up to form ‘pandemic pods,’ where clusters of students receive professional instruction for several hours each day.  It’s a 2020 version of the one-room school house, privately funded… It’s not all ad hoc parent organizing.  An industry normally focused on providing tutors has seized this moment and is working to connect families with educators.  Jennifer Shemtob, owner of Teacher Time to Go, a small company working in the Philadelphia suburbs, said demand is intense.  She is offering a package of three hours of tutoring, four days a week.  For one family, the cost is $480 per week. If two families join, with up to six children, it’s $720 a week total.” “These arrangements will allow children with affluent parents and connections to get ahead even as the system makes it harder for other children, said L’Hereux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology of education professor at New York University.  He calls it a fresh example of ‘opportunity hoarding.'”

I am myself skeptical about the value of online education, and I believe children thrive instead when they work with a qualified teacher and learn collaboratively with their peers.  But the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have until now consistently promoted online learning.  In a sudden turnaround, however, the Trump administration is disdainful of virtual learning under any circumstances.  The President now demands that schools reopen nationwide, full-time, five days a week even in places where COVID-19 is raging.  At Politico, Michael Stratford quotes quotes the President tweeting last week: “Now that we have witnessed it on a large sale basis, and firsthand, Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning.” Stratford explains precisely why Trump and DeVos have moved 180 degrees in their opinion of online instruction: “The Trump administration has been clear that it’s concerned that schools remaining closed would be a drag on the economic recovery that the president is banking on ahead of the November election. ‘If we don’t reopen the schools, that would be a setback to a true economic recovery,’ Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser said this week.”

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Matt Viser reported on a press conference convened by presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, to acknowledge the urgent and competing concerns about opening schools this fall: “Biden urged caution, saying that each district should make its own decisions based on local conditions, and that schools in areas with high infection rates should not reopen too soon.  He also called on Congress to pass new emergency funding to help the schools… ‘This year, back to school is going to look very, very different… And we know how hard it’s going to be for families all over the country… Teachers are tough.  But it’s wrong to endanger educators and students.  We need a better plan.'”

Viser continues: “Biden also warned that without an infusion of federal funds, districts will struggle to pay for added health protections and may be forced to lay off teachers.  He called on Congress to allocate emergency funding to help schools reconfigure classrooms, improve ventilation, and take other steps to allow for social distancing within their buildings… ‘We had a window to get this right.  And, Trump blew it… His administration failed to heed the experts and take the steps required to reduce infections in our communities.'”

School Districts Need Budget Relief as School Starts Amid Pademic: U.S. Senate Must Pass HEROES Act

Here we are in mid-July.  Facing enormous challenges, school district leaders are trying to figure out how they can safely provide school this fall. Here are the two biggest questions:

  • How can schools be reopened safely as COVID-19 is now raging across many states and local hot spots?
  • What funds—in the midst of recessionary state budget shortfalls—will be available to plan for staffing levels, programming, and safety precautions during the pandemic?

While the news this past week has been filled with reports about school districts’ reopening plans (here and here.), next week the U.S. Senate will return from recess and begin to debate the HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 15.

The proposals on the table involve confusing estimates of the massive dollars involved and the debate has become highly politicized. However, there is no question that school districts are going to need more money. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “State and local tax revenues have crashed in recent months due to massive layoffs, business shutdowns, and social distancing measures to fight the virus… We estimate that state budget shortfalls will total about $555 billion over fiscal years 2020-2022, a sharper drop than even the worst years of the Great Recession of a decade ago—not including the added costs to fight COVID-19… In the Great Recession, states relied disproportionately on budget cuts to close their shortfalls, and they’ll almost certainly follow a similar path without more federal aid.  State and local governments are already starting to cut services and furlough or lay off teachers… and other public workers.”

Chalkbeat’s Kalyn Belsha reports on several reasons the CARES Act, an early relief bill passed by Congress in March, is inadequate to the current education funding crisis. She reports that Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding calls the CARES Act a mere ‘down payment’ which barely begins to cover funding necessities.” “Congress set up the main $13.2 billion emergency education fund in the CARES Act to quickly help school districts and charter schools pay for new costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Districts don’t get all of that money; state education agencies can keep 10%, and districts have to set aside some money for private schools in their area.”

Belsha adds: “It’s widely acknowledged that the CARES Act isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of what schools will need to operate in the coming school year and beyond, especially because many districts are likely to see their budgets slashed as local and state tax revenue falls… (I)n several states, the CARES Act dollars will mostly go toward making up for state budget cuts to education. That’s the case in Georgia, New York and Texas.  Just south of Atlanta, Clayton County Public Schools, which serves about 54,000 students, nearly all of whom come from low-income families, is getting $17.5 million from the CARES Act. That will go toward Chromebooks, Wi-Fi for students, and staffing costs, says Superintendent Morcease J. Beasley. But Georgia also cut Beasley’s budget by about $45 million, essentially wiping away those federal dollars and more. To make up the difference, Beasley said his district had to freeze staff salaries, dip into its savings, and cut school operations by about 15%.”  School districts across the country face the same dilemma.

Belsha adds that many school districts have not yet been able to access the CARES Act dollars they have been promised: “Schools are only just starting to tap this money. Buy the end of May, about 1% of that $13.2 billion had been spent… That hasn’t changed much yet.  Figures provided by state education agencies indicate that in Delaware, Illinois, and Virginia, districts and charter schools have been reimbursed for less than 1% of the money available to them.  In some places it’s higher: Montana schools have spent and been reimbursed for about 4%, while South Carolina schools have spent about 7%.  Kansas schools have spent and been reimbursed for about 9%.  Part of that is because it’s taken time for the money to reach districts.  States had to apply to the federal government for their share, and school districts generally had to apply to their states, which is typical for a large federal grant program. In many states, school districts also have to seek approval as they spend the money.”

For Education Week, Daarell Burnette II and Madeline Will explain the likely consequences if Congress fails to appropriate enough to ensure that school districts can continue paying teachers despite an expected precipitous drop in state funding: “(S)tate income and sales tax revenue has plummeted, and, without a sizeable Congressional bailout, tens of thousands of teachers are at risk of losing their jobs in the coming months. Georgia’s state legislature, for example, cut more than $950 million out of its K-12 budget last month. And Nevada’s state legislature this month is debating a proposal to cut out of its budget more than $156 million, almost a quarter of the state’s K-12 public school spending.” In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine made an administrative cut of $300 million out of the FY 2020 budget for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, and school districts expect significant additional cuts from the FY 2021 budget that covers next school year.

The debate beginning next week when the U.S. Senate returns is likely to be contentious. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reports that Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has said he estimates K-12 public schools and colleges and universities need an additional $50 or $75 billion, which is far less than the $90 billion the HEROES Act, passed in May by the House of Representatives, allocates for a state stabilization fund dedicated to education. A more generous Senate bill introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) includes $200 billion for states to support public schools.  Clearly we can anticipate intense negotiation in Congress during the next two weeks.

The clearest justification for passage of the HEROES Act is described in an analysis by the National Education Association, which calculated what is likely to be lost from each state’s general revenue fund over Fiscal Years 2020, 2021, and 2022, and how those losses will affect each state’s education budget for K-12 public education. NEA projects large job losses. “States are experiencing a precipitous decline in revenues as a result of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Using current economic projections… NEA estimates that without additional federal emergency aid, state general fund revenues in support of education could fall by about $200 billion affecting about one-fifth of the education workforce after accounting for the use of state rainy day funds and funding available under the CARES Act… The HEROES Act, which has passed the House, would help stem some of the state revenue shortfall. It includes $90 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) dedicated to education, to remain available until September 30, 2022, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus… The grants to states under the SFSF are intended to maintain or restore state and local fiscal support for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education… NEA estimates that the SFSF would restore or save at least 825,000 jobs in elementary and secondary and higher education.”

During 2018 and 2019, we all watched a two year wave of teachers’ strikes across several states and cities to protest the educational impact of education job losses lingering from the 2008 Great Recession: classes of 40 students per teacher and shortages of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, nurses and certified librarians. It is unlikely that these educational concerns are driving President Trump’s threats to withhold federal dollars from school districts that refuse to open full time, five days a week next month. Washington Post White House reporter Philip Rucker and his colleagues speculate that President Trump’s sole concern regarding school reopening is economic: “After some economists advised Trump that the economy could not fully recover until schools reopen, because most parents need childcare to return to their jobs, the president suddenly made schools a focus.”  This is, of course, about the President’s reelection strategy.

Ironically, however, while President Trump seems to grasp the economic need for daily supervision of children during the school day, he seems not to have noticed another economic consequence if teachers and other staff are laid off due to state budget crises.  If he did understand, he would be pressuring Congress to be generous in its recessionary relief. Reuters reporter David Lawder lays out another part of the economic justification for Congressional passage of the HEROES Act when the Senate returns this week:  “K-12 schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.  Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle, and high schools compared to about six million in private schools… With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance, and insurance and transportation and warehousing. Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year…. That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021… The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12, 612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies. Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.”

Of course public schools’ primary importance is to nurture and educate the nation’s young people in institutions that are universally available, accessible for every child, and operated according to the law. However, if Trump is worried more about economics in the midst of the current recession, his best choice next week is to push Congress to negotiate a federal recessionary relief package that will support the nation’s public schools in the midst of what is expected to be a deep and long-lasting recession.

In a NY Times column on Wednesday, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke understands the need to support public education and to recognize the economic impact of those eight million education jobs across every city, suburb, town and rural area of the United States: “The coronavirus pandemic has set loose a recession of shocking speed and severity… As a member of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Restart and Recovery commission in New Jersey, I have worked to help put together an effective reopening strategy, one that not only will allow the state’s economy to move forward but also will address the glaring inequalities the pandemic has revealed. The experience has been eye-opening. It’s become abundantly clear that the responsibility for responding to the pandemic cannot lie only with local and state governments. Congress must act decisively—and it must act in ways that don’t repeat mistakes of the recent past, during the Great Recession. Our state governments serve a dual role as providers of critical services—health care, public safety, education, and mass transit—as well as large employers… New Jersey has successfully flattened the curve of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. But since the state had to virtually shut down in order to control the spread, that success has come with a staggering price tag… Budget gaps like the one in New Jersey cannot be closed by austerity alone.  Multiply New Jersey’s problems to reflect the experiences of 50 state governments and thousands of local governments and the result, without more help from Congress, could be a significantly worse and protracted recession.”

School Opening Optimism Collapses: In Midst of COVID-19 Surge, Many Districts Will Open Online Only

Until last week it seemed that nobody—apart from the school administrators and teachers considering staggered schedules this fall to ensure social distancing as smaller groups of children share classroom space and buses—seemed to be thinking about the feasibility of opening school this fall.  Then last week, when President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demanded that schools reopen full time, five days a week, everybody finally began paying attention to the sometimes competing needs of students for routine and in-person support from their teachers, of educators for direct connection with children, and parents for the supervision schools would provide when they have to go back to work. There has also been the puzzling contradiction between pediatricians who recently said kids can go back to school safely and the data in our newspapers which say COVID-19 is spiking even higher in some places than back in March, when schools shut down to protect everybody.

By Monday night, however, with a spate of press reports about schooling this fall in a number of the nation’s biggest cities, optimism collapsed. We have learned that in a number of large school districts where the coronavirus is spiking, students will begin the school year online full time. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reports: “Resisting pressure from President Trump, three of the nation’s largest school districts said Monday that they will begin the new school year with all students learning from home.  Schools in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Atlanta will begin entirely online, officials said Monday.  Schools in Nashville plan to do the same, at least through Labor Day.”

The NY Times Shawn Hubler and Dana Goldstein remind us that a lot of students are involved, and that the government’s failure to contain the virus is the reason: “The Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts, which together enroll some 825,000 students, are the largest so far in the country to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. More than a third of California’s coronavirus cases are in Los Angeles County, and San Diego County has had 18 community outbreaks over the past week, more than double the state’s acceptable threshold.”

Politico‘s Nicole Gaudiano and Bianca Quilantan report: “Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools—touted as a model by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for its comprehensive reopening plan—is offering up to five days of in-person learning, along with an online option. But the superintendent now is casting doubt on the possibility of kids returning to classrooms on the first day of school if the city remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, though Florida’s new reopening plan orders the state’s public schools to reopen in August for at least five days per week for all students… Despite the state mandate, Broward County School District is still weighing whether to reopen classrooms when school starts on Aug. 19.”  In Houston, Texas, “Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district is still finalizing its fall plans, but it is considering resuming classes through in-person, online instruction, or hybrid models.”

Chalkbeat‘s Kalyn Belsha and Claire Bryan add several other districts to the list: “School officials in metro Nashville, Atlanta, Phoenix, and other California cities like Oakland and San Bernardino all have made similar decisions. That number could grow, as school officials in places like Memphis have signaled they may start the year virtually if cases continue to rise in their area… The decision to return to full-time virtual learning in several cities marks a sea change, upending the expectations that many educators, parents, and students had earlier this summer that the fall would bring a return to some of the normal routines of school, even if only for a few days a week. The announcements come as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have ramped up the pressure on school officials to reopen school buildings and make a full return to in-person instruction , even as some states are seeing new highs for coronavirus hospitalizations….”

The NYC Public Schools have been planning to open on a hybrid schedule with smaller numbers of children (at any one time) sharing the limited space in school classrooms, but on Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced strict restrictions if COVID-19 numbers spike. Chalkbeat‘s Reema Amin and Alex Zimmerman explain: “New York school districts will be allowed to reopen if the surrounding region has reached the fourth and final phase of reopening and the daily infection rate is below 5% based on the proportion of tests coming back positive and based on a 14-day average, Cuomo said Monday.  State officials will determine if New York City, which counts as its own region, has met that threshold in the first week of August.”

The White House and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have downplayed the danger that the opening of schools might accelerate the spread of the virus, despite that medical experts have shown special concern about transmission among older students. When she was asked about concerns for the health of teachers who in middle and high school may meet with over a hundred students each day, the vacuous, Barbie Doll press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany appeared not to grasp the complexities of a schoolteacher’s life: “There’s a way for essential workers to go back to work, just as our meatpacking facilities did. Just as you all in the media are essential workers, we believe our teachers are as well.”

While last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorsed the return to full time schooling, this week after the President has bragged widely about the doctors’ guidance, the AAP qualified its recommendations and released a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the School Superintendents’ Association: “We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online.  Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. Our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed… Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that’s safe for all students, teachers and staff.  Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

The pediatricians and educators add a reminder about funding: “Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children, teachers, and staff will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses. We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools.”

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa corrects a misconception voiced by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a CNN interview, when DeVos claimed that because public schools have not yet spent most of their CARES Act relief dollars for schools, the consideration of further federal relief by Congress is not a priority.  DeVos alluded to a GAO report, which, she said, “suggests that schools aren’t lacking federal support to reopen.” Ujifusa explains: “We asked the Council of Chief State School Officers about the GAO report and why so much CARES aid is unspent.  After stressing the importance of the CARES money, the group said in a statement that, ‘All states and districts have put plans in place for how to spend these funds. The data in this [GAO] report is likely reflective of the technicalities and timing on how districts draw down funds.'”  Ujifusa explains further: “It’s important to note here that when the GAO refers to money being ‘spent,’ it’s talking about states distributing the money to school districts. States can set aside up to 10 percent of CARES money for K-12 districts for their own, statewide purposes. But if states don’t get the rest of the money to schools, they can’t spend it.”  Public schools spend over 80 percent of their funding on staff, and, especially in the context of recessionary cuts they are experiencing in state funding, they need to be able to plan exactly how much federal funding they will be able to invest in teachers, support professionals, bus drivers, custodians, and other staff.

What about recent threats from President Trump and Betsy DeVos to withhold federal funds if districts do not open up full time, five days a week.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss assures readers that Trump and DeVos have no real capacity to withhold funding for school districts: “The threats… are largely just that: threats without real teeth behind them. While presidents can in some cases legally withhold funding appropriated by Congress, they can’t do it without notifying Congress and in some cases getting approval… Trump and DeVos… also have no authority to force schools to open at a particular time or in a specific way.”

It would appear that the huge push last week by President Trump and his education secretary to demand that schools reopen full time, five days a week is a political ploy designed to help his reelection campaign more than a policy initiative designed to support the nation’s 98,000 public schools.  Several reporters on Monday noticed DeVos’s ideological inconsistency—pushing the essential reopening of public schools when she has never before spoken positively about the role of public education, and endorsing in-person education when she has previously pushed to expand online learning ventures. The NY TimesErica Green noticed the apparent contradiction: “Before last week, Ms. DeVos seemed to think there were many ways schools could meet this challenge.  In recent months, she had been criticized for using the coronavirus to push policy changes that would create more options for families during the pandemic, including vouchers for private schools, tutoring and virtual schools.  In early April, she announced new distance-learning rules for higher education, saying that the national emergency ‘underscores the need for reform and for all educational institutions to have a robust capacity to teach remotely.’ Later that month, she announced a microgrant competition, in which states could compete for $180 million grants to set up statewide virtual learning….”

The President has clearly realized that his political support among the nation’s parents will diminish further when people realize that his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the in-person reopening of public schools in many places this fall.  He doesn’t like to admit that his own denial and politicization of the pandemic has discouraged social distancing. He would be the last person to share NY Times columnist Paul Krugman’s judgment on Monday: “America drank away its children’s future: As the school year looms, the pandemic is still raging… (M)any states not only rushed to reopen, they reopened stupidly.  Instead of being treated as a cheap, effective way to fight contagion, face masks became a front in the culture war. Activities that posed an obvious risk of feeding the pandemic went unchecked: Large gatherings were permitted, bars reopened.”

True to form, the President has snared his education secretary into helping him blame the schools and the teachers for the medical problem whose seriousness he has failed to acknowledge and address.

Trump and DeVos Want Schools Open Full Time, Five Days A Week: The Realities Are Far More Difficult

Now, in mid-July, America is suddenly waking up to the need to think about how COVID-19 will affect the institutions that serve children come August and September. The press is finally reporting that opening public schools for over 50 million young people is going to be complex, difficult and expensive, and that nobody is quite sure how to do it. Now that we are paying attention, we can see that the fall is going to be difficult in all sorts of ways—for children, for parents, for educators, and for the economy.  But for President Donald Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos, it’s very simple: Schools should open on time, five days a week. The Trump administration has even threatened to punish schools that don’t reopen on time by withholding federal funds.

On Friday, NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg described what she has learned in interviews with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Two weeks ago, I asked Randi Weingarten… what a functioning Department of Education would be doing to prepare the country to reopen schools in the fall. ‘A functioning Department of Education would have been getting groups of superintendents and principals and unions and others together from the middle of March,’ she told me… By mid-April it would have convened experts to figure out how to reopen schools safely, and offered grants to schools trying different models… ‘None of that has happened… Zero.’  When I spoke to Weingarten again on Thursday, she wasn’t worried that Trump and DeVos would be able to follow through on their threats; they can’t redirect the funds without Congress. But with their crude attempts at coercion, they’ve politicized school reopening just as Trump politicized mask-wearing and hydroxychloroquine. ‘The threats are empty, but the distrust they have caused is not,’ Weingarten said.”

Most of us don’t spend time considering the complexity of the daily operation of institutions that serve hundreds, sometimes thousands of students.  On Saturday,  however, the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailed just one set of challenges—providing safe school bus transportation: “School buses—without proper precautions—could become hives of infection allowing for easy spread of coronavirus. ‘It’s a very enclosed area with a lot of people, and that’s when we tend to get in trouble with this disease,’ said Dr. Claudia Hoyen, director of infection control at… Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.”  Here are the precautions Dr. Hoyen has been sharing with school personnel in the Cleveland area: “One child per seat… and then additional spacing so that not every seat is being used. Opening windows when weather permits to improve circulation. Keeping the buses clean and sanitized… Installing plastic barriers to separate the driver from the riders… Giving riders assigned seats so that if a child does become sick, the spread of the virus should be limited. Having children wear masks.. Having the driver remind children to stay in their seats and to not scream, but allow them to talk.’… All these cautions are one of the reasons many school districts are planning to stagger schedules and bring only a percentage of children to school on a given day.  But imagine the added challenges for adolescents in New York City, where, with a universal public school choice program in place for middle and high schoolers, many adolescents regularly get to school on the subway.

On Friday evening, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler described the impracticality of Betsy DeVos’s command that all children be in school, in person, five days a week come fall.  Meckler reports that, ironically, even one of Betsy DeVos’s favorite charter school chains can’t make full time, in-person schooling  happen: “(S)chool systems across the country have already decided on models where students learn from home part of the time… Like many other systems, Success Academy Charter Schools… in New York City says it cannot safely reopen with all children in the building because there is not enough room to keep them apart. ‘There’s not enough space,’ said Ann Powell, a spokesperson for Success Academy. ‘It’s hard to practice social distancing… unless you have a lot of empty classrooms to spare.’… Many schools face the same problem, which is why districts across the country have announced hybrid plans, where students will be in schools some days and learning from home on others.” The Centers for Disease Control has recommended guidelines for safely opening schools, “But Trump attacked those guidelines this week, calling them on Twitter, ‘very tough & expensive’ and demanding ‘very impractical things.'”

Another NY Times report on Friday explains why these hybrid plans are neither going to meet the President’s expectations nor to be workable for families: “Public school parents will not learn what days their children can attend school until August, so it will be difficult for working families to let their employers know before late summer when they can show up in person. Working parents have expressed confusion and anxiety about the prospect of a part-time return to schools without a child care plan…’There’s a child care crisis coming,’ said Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union, which represents about 75,000 classroom teachers. Thousands of teachers who have spent months juggling remote learning for their students and their own children will now have to figure out how to return to school full time while their children go back only a few days a week.”

On Friday, the NY TimesEileen Sullivan and Erica Green obtained the Centers for Disease Control document which President Trump and Betsy DeVos have criticized as too expensive and impractical.  In the document the CDC staff examine several plans school districts have developed to guide their reopening: “(T)he material is critical of ‘noticeable gaps’ in all of the K-12 reopening plans it reviewed, though it identified Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Minnesota as having the most detailed,”  Sullivan and Green quote from the CDC document: “While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening… In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.” The reporters add that the CDC’s “suggestions for mitigating the risk of school reopenings would be expensive and difficult for many districts, like broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher.”

Two detailed news analyses published over the weekend examine what our political leaders ought to have learned from observing the reopening of schools in other societies around the world. These reports are detailed, and I encourage you to read them both.

In the first, NY Times science reporters Pam Belluck, Apoorva Mandavilli and Benedict Carey summarize some of what others have observed so far: “No nation has tried to send children back to school with the virus raging at levels like America’s, and the scientific research about transmission in classrooms is limited. The World Health Organization has now concluded that the virus is airborne in crowded, indoor spaces with poor ventilation, a description that fits many American schools… Data from around the world clearly shows that children are far less likely to become seriously ill from the coronavirus than adults. But there are big unanswered questions, including how often children become infected and what role they play in transmitting the virus. Some research suggests younger children are less likely to infect other people than teenagers are, which would make opening elementary schools less risky than high schools, but the evidence is not conclusive.”

In the second, a Washington Post reporter on Europe, Michael Birnbaum examines how schools organized for reopening and what happened across Europe, in Israel, and in Canada: “(P)ublic health officials and researchers caution that most school reopenings are in their early stages. Much remains unknown about the interaction between children, schools and the virus. And parents and teachers, especially in Europe, have been vocal about their concerns… While documented cases of younger students transmitting the virus to their classmates or to adults so far appear rare, there is enduring worry about the susceptibility of teens, college-age students and their teachers. And, especially in communities where the virus is still circulating widely, elaborate and expensive measures may be necessary to avoid shutting down entire schools each time a student tests positive. Arnaud Fontanet, head of the Epidemiology of Emerging Diseases unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, said he ‘gladly’ sent his four teenagers back when French schools reopened on a voluntary basis in mid-May. But he emphasized that was only because ‘the virus is not too much circulating in France.'”

In a column for USA Today at the end of last week, the president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia worries about the difficulty of protecting students and teachers in already struggling public schools where staff shortages linger from the economic recession a decade ago: “No one wants to welcome students back to classrooms more than America’s educators. We know that nothing can replace the magic of a student’s curiosity when they are able to learn alongside their peers from a teacher who has dedicated her life to the success of other people’s children. But the Trump administration’s plan is appallingly reckless… The vast majority of our schools still have not returned to funding levels from before the 2008 financial crisis, when more than 300,000 school employees lost their jobs as states decided to balance their budgets on the backs of our students. Now we face a revenue crisis that experts project will be worse, before we begin to discuss the additional funding needs related to COVID-19, such as personal protective equipment, class sizes conducive to social distancing, and ensuring social and emotional needs are met—particularly in Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. As a sixth-grade teacher from Utah, I’ve taught 39 students in a classroom with one window. I’ve toured schools in Louisiana where ‘temporary’ portable buildings erected after Hurricane Katrina still occupy the schools’ playgrounds and physical education fields… Safety must not be compromised.”