Sorting Out the School Reopening Worries and the Political Issues Swirling Around Public Schools This Week

This morning we are poised between the Democratic and Republican conventions. Public education policy has become highly politicized in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that has upended the autumn opening of what we all expected would be the 2020-2021 school year.

While public education was unlikely to arise as the top issue at either convention, a mass of newspaper coverage shows us that public schooling is of urgent importance to many people. The papers are filled with all kinds of spreads about whether or not schools ought to reopen and what has begun happening in places where schools have reopened. While we may take our public schools for granted, we can see that when the opening of schools is disrupted, it touches our lives in the most basic way. And we know that problems with reopening school are likely to hurt the children whose needs are greatest: The coronavirus is not only exposing inequality in America, but it is at the same time exacerbating the challenges for disabled children, and very poor children.

The purpose of today’s post is to sort through some of the confusion about reopening schools and to sort out the policy issues swirling this week around public education. What follows is an attempt to provide some clarification.

The Pros and Cons of Reopening Schools Full-Time, In-Person

Everybody seems to agree that children would be better off educationally and psychologically if the 2020-2021 school year could open normally with children back in class.  However, as a team of writers at Politico reports: “Thousands of kids and… (college students) are getting sick, along with their teachers, triggering mass quarantines, campus closures and last-minute switches to online learning. Virus-proof kids who are ‘virtually immune’ to the scourge—that was what the president promised.  A few days into the new school year, that prediction hasn’t held together… Infection clusters and quarantines are already plaguing K-12 schools… Besides outbreaks in schools in the majority of counties in Mississippi, hundreds of students in a single district in Georgia are being quarantined two weeks after school started.”

The NY City school district, with over a million students, is the only large urban district in the United States that hasn’t given up on beginning the school year with at least some in-person, in-school instruction.  All the rest have reverted to the default: trying to make online schooling work.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that New York City plans to reopen with a hybrid plan: “The city, once the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, has dramatically reduced its covid-19 infection rate, and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced this month that school districts could choose to reopen as long as their positivity rate was under 5 percent. Currently it’s at about 1 percent. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has released a hybrid plan for reopening, but he won’t make final decisions until the end of this month.”

Strauss continues, reprinting a critique by a number of NYC parents who worry about the imminent return of their children to the city’s schools. The parents worry that 41 neighborhoods currently have COVID-19 positivity rates over 3 percent; hundreds of thousands of students will be riding to and from school on public transportation; ventilation may be inadequate in a district with 1,500 school buildings, many of which are over a hundred years old; and the district is experiencing a shortage of funding to implement safety precautions at scale. Finally they worry that, “The on-again, off-again nature of the hybrid schedule, coupled with the possibility of schools periodically closing when infection hits, are the antithesis of the stable, consistent environment” children need.

The executive committee of Ohio Public Education Partners, a group including teachers, administrators, and school board members, worries about trying to reopen schools full-time because of potential problems with adequate staffing: “A shortage of both long-term teachers and substitute teachers that predates the pandemic will only make the coverage of teacher absences more difficult for students.  Most schools do not have full-time nurses in their buildings. The reality of quarantining entire groups of teachers and students upon the discovery of a confirmed virus case in the classroom will completely disrupt real teaching and learning.” Finally, “Ohio’s K-12 public school budget has already been slashed by $330 million to cope with the collapsing economy due to the pandemic.”

Where do the Political Parties and Candidates Stand on Public Education Policy?

Last week, Joe Biden appeared with his wife Jill in her former classroom at a Wilmington Delaware high school. He has supported better federal funding for public schools serving the nation’s poorest children and more federal funding to support mandated federal programs that serve the needs of disabled children. Education Week‘s Evid Blad summarizes: “Joe Biden pledged that, if elected, his education department would be a sharp departure from that of President Donald Trump. Rather than promoting private school choice, as the Republican incumbent has, Biden pledged to dramatically increase federal aid to schools, including ambitious calls to triple the Title I funding targeted at students from low-income households and to ‘fully fund’ the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Blad adds that Biden’s policies do not follow the priorities of the Obama administration in which Biden served as the Vice President: “Though he’s campaigned heavily on his experience as Obama’s vice president, Biden has departed on some key issues from (Obama), that self-described supporter of education reform.  Obama’s education department championed rigorous state education standards, encouraged states to lift their caps on public charter schools to apply for big federal Race to the Top Grants, and offered charter school conversions as an improvement strategy for struggling schools.  By contrast, Biden called for a scale-back of standardized testing at a 2019 MSNBC education forum, and he criticized their use in teacher evaluations, a key policy goal of the Obama administration.  Under the leadership of Biden’s campaign, Democrats formally introduced a party platform this week that criticizes high-states testing and calls for new restrictions on charter schools… Perhaps the biggest return to Obama-era policies—and a big departure from the education priorities of President Donald Trump’s administration—would be Biden and Harris’s stated approach to student civil rights.  Biden has committed to reinstating Obama-era civil rights guidance that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has rescinded in recent years.”

The National Education Association has created a clear and accessible online, interactive brief which contrasts of the public education policy priorities of the Trump administration and Biden’s proposals.  This blog has covered the education platform of the Democratic Biden-Harris ticket here, here, and here.

Unlike Biden, President Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos have, for four years, relentlessly promoted school privatization. Here are four years of posts on this blog that track and evaluate Betsy DeVos’s castigation of what she calls “government” schools and promotion of programs which undermine public schools at the expense of marketplace school choice.

Trump Administration Declares Teachers Are “Essential Workers”

For a month now, President Trump has insistently demanded that schools reopen this fall, on time and in person.  His focus has been getting kids back to school at all costs as a strategy for getting their parents back to work—although he has not worked with Congress to make federal relief funding available. In fact his administration has demanded that if Congress allocates any additional funding, it should go only to schools which open full time, in person.

The latest Trump administration strategy to facilitate school reopening was an action last Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency: the release of nonbinding guidance that teachers and other school staff are essential workers.  Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains: “The Trump administration has released nonbinding guidance that teachers and other school staff are ‘critical infrastructure workers’ as it pushes for schools to resume in-person classes this school year… (T)eachers and others in the K-12 education field are identified as part of a long list of ‘essential’ workers ‘who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continued critical infrastructure viability’ and who ‘support crucial supply chains and enable functions for critical infrastructure.’ The agency’s section about education includes a wide range of school staff, from teachers, para-educators, and mental health professionals, to cafeteria workers, crossing guards, librarians, and superintendents.”

The new guidance declaring teachers and school workers as “essential” employees is non-binding.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss addresses the question of what ‘non-binding’ means in this case: “The declaration of teachers as ‘critical infrastructure workers’… means that teachers exposed to coronavirus but who show no symptoms can return to classrooms and not quarantine for 14 days as public health agencies recommend. DHS said the label is only advisory and not meant to be a federal directive.  Still, school districts that want teachers to return to classrooms—even when teachers don’t think it is safe enough—could use the federal designation to bolster their own mandates… On Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) said he supported new state guidance that tells school districts they can declare teachers as critical infrastructure workers and require them to return to work even if exposed.”  The purpose of the new guidance seems to be to bolster decisions in states which agree to Trump’s contention that all schools ought to open up.

Federal Judge Invalidates DeVos Guidance Favoring Private Schools in Allocation of CARES Act Dollars

And finally, last Friday, a federal judge ruled against Betsy DeVos’s binding guidance that federal CARES Act dollars be diverted from the public schools serving concentrations of our nation’s poorest children to cover the educational needs of students in private schools regardless of the private school students’ family income. The CARES Act was the first coronavirus relief bill passed last March.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains Betsy DeVos’s binding rule, which U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein just rejected: “The Education Department’s interim final rule, publicized in June and formally issued in July, pushes school districts to reserve money under the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus stimulus plan, for services to all local private school students, irrespective of their backgrounds. That represents a major departure from how education law typically governs that arrangement, in which federal money for what’s known as ‘equitable services’ goes to disadvantaged, at-risk private school students.”

Ujifusa explains just what Judge Rothstein ruled in her injunction on Friday: “In a preliminary injunction halting enforcement and implementation of the rule while she considers the case pitting Washington state against the Education Department, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein harshly and repeatedly rejected the department’s arguments. She said that the agency subverted the intent of Congress and hurt students most affected by the pandemic, and that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did not have the authority to issue the rule in the first place… Rothstein does not say that her order extends beyond Washington state to other jurisdictions, but she also does not explicitly limit it to the state. And it could be a bad sign for the department in two other lawsuits about the rule, even if it’s power to change spending decisions on the ground is unclear.” “Rothstein pointed to separate CARES funding intended primarily for small businesses that private schools could access.”

Will this injunction have any impact months after states have already been distributing CARES Act funding to help school districts support online learning last spring and plans to reopen this fall?  Ujifusa explains: “The rule affects roughly 8 to 10 percent of the CARES Act’s $13.2 billion for public schools.  However, with the 2020-21 school year underway in many districts, its not clear how such an injunction, if it takes effect nationwide, might affect local school districts’ decisions about CARES aid.  Critics of the department’s approach have said for months that it has sown uncertainty in school districts.”

We can expect to read more in upcoming weeks about the legality of Betsy DeVos’s mandatory guidance respecting the distribution of CARES Act dollars.  What we know is that DeVos made sure over the summer that the public schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—the schools Congress intended to support with CARES Act dollars—lost out once again.